Friday, March 18, 2011

No risk-free course in Libya

Max Hastings writes a powerful brief in today's FT against yet another military plunge into the unknown in Libya:
The first principle for any nation using force is to ensure it succeeds. But in Iraq and Afghanistan the west has learnt that unseating regimes is relatively easy; the hard part is to promote acceptable alternatives.

The intelligence failure in Libya, and indeed across the Maghreb, has proved absolute. Western leaders know almost nothing either about the Libyan insurgents or about what is happening on the ground. It would be madness to commit US and allied forces to destroy Col Gaddafi, with no notion of what would follow.
What Hastings doesn't acknowledge, though, are the perhaps equally fraught consequences of standing aside. He overstates the upside of eschewing military intervention:

The west should lead a vigorous offensive designed to bring down Col Gaddafi by economic and financial siege. The legitimacy of his regime, always precarious, now seems irreparable. Even the Russians and the Chinese, though unwilling to use force, will have difficulty justifying a resumption of business as usual with him.

Some people regard containment as a synonym for infirmity, and today wring their hands at Col Gaddafi’s military success. But the boy scout ethic that characterised Tony Blair’s leadership of Britain, driven by eagerness to do good deeds in a naughty world, is discredited by experience.
I do think that containment of Iraq after the first Gulf war was probably the least bad option, but it was a policy that generated great suffering for the Iraqis and ultimately destabilizing anxiety for the West. Would containing a Gaddafi who has doubled down on his past pariah status not carry strong risks, perhaps equal to or exceeding those of U.N. authorized intervention with Arab League participation?

The closest analogy from our history in Iraq is not Bush's all-but-unilateral invasion in 2003 but the Shiite uprising in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War. Even then, though the U.S.had assembled an international coalition and could have cited the rebels' desire for U.S. military support as a mandate for intervention, it did not have the international authorization and Arab world assent to unseat the dictator that now obtain regarding Libya.  That doesn't necessarily make the planned action in Libya less fraught with unknowns than moving against Saddam would have been in 1991 (though the scale of risk is less, since Libya has about 1/5 of Iraq's population and far less military capability than Iraq had in 1991).  But it's not the repeat-folly of 2003 that some are making it out to be, either.

More on the Libyan conundrum:
O Captain! My Captain! Make us all get in the boat together (3/23/11)
The Financial Times hearts dithering  (3/22/11)
Another war, another presidential 'terms sheet' (3/21/11)
Obama's military triangulation (3/20/11)
A spectacle of war and intervention (3/18/11)

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