Friday, March 18, 2011

"A spectacle of war and intervention"

Marc Lynch has a balanced and frankly ambivalent analysis of the U.N. action on Libya, noting both its potential to strengthen the rule of law in the world and its potential to devolve into a bloody quagmire with no exit.

Not venturing to call odds on those possibilities, I just want to note one sidelight cast by Lynch's scenario-izing. It's here (my emphasis):

But if it does not succeed quickly, and the intervention degenerates into a long quagmire of air strikes, grinding street battles, and growing pressure for the introduction of outside ground forces, then the impact could be quite different.  Despite the bracing scenes of Benghazi erupting into cheers at the news of the Resolution, Arab support for the intervention is not nearly as deep as it seems and will not likely survive an extended war.  If Libyan civilians are killed in airstrikes, and especially if foreign troops enter Libyan territory, and images of Arabs killed by U.S. forces replace images of brave protestors battered by Qaddafi's forces on al-Jazeera, the narrative could change quickly into an Iraq-like rage against Western imperialism.   What began as an indigenous peaceful Arab uprising against authoritarian rule could collapse into a spectacle of war and intervention.  
What strikes me here is the framing of contemporary war as spectacle -- the implicit acknowledgment that the ground war and the PR war are inseparable, and the implication that the PR war is the decisive one.
That assumption is probably accurate. Global and local perceptions shape the actions of rulers as well as the rest of us, as the most subtle of Lynch's speculations highlights:

The Libya intervention is also complicated by the trends in the rest of the region. There is currently a bloody crackdown going on in U.S.-backed Bahrain, with the support of Saudi Arabia and the GCC.   The Yemeni regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh is currently carrying out some of its bloodiest repression yet.  Will the Responsibility to Protect extend to Bahrain and Yemen?  This is not a tangential point.  One of the strongest reasons to intervene in Libya is the argument that the course of events there will influence the decisions of other despots about the use of force.  If they realize that the international community will not allow the brutalization of their own people, and a robust new norm created, then intervention in Libya will pay off far beyond its borders.  But will ignoring Bahrain and Yemen strangle that new norm in its crib?  
Word, deed, spectacle. Perhaps they've always been as entwined and fused as they are now. But rulers used to have more control over all of them.

UPDATE: bearing out Lynch's concern with image and spectacle, a detail from the Times report on preparations:
Obama administration officials said that allied action against Libya had to include the participation of Arab countries and were insistent, as one senior official put it, that the red, green and black of Arab nations’ flags be prominent in military operations. As of Thursday night, the U.S. said it had firm commitments from both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to contribute fighter jets to the effort, and that Jordan had also agreed to participate, although the extent of that participation was not yet clear by Friday.

Qatar’s flag is red and white, The U.A.E.’s flag is red, green, white and black and Jordan’s flag is black, white and green.

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)

No risk-free course in Libya  (3/18/11)

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