Libya: The Brutish but Not-So-Short Debate (Updated 3 times, most recently Tuesday morning)

Nicholas Kristof observes that support or opposition for the intervention in the Libyan civil war has split not along traditional left/right ideological lines, but along internationalist/isolationist ones. I think that’s a fair enough observation, especially since the intervention in Libya has split the editors of this blog. Find below an edited version of the debate Tom and I’ve been having in the comments section under this post.

Relevant background reading:

“Many are crying hypocrisy, citing other places an intervention could be staged or worrying that Libya sets a precedent. I don’t find those arguments persuasive. Military intervention is always selective, depending on a constellation of political will, military ability, international legitimacy and practical constraints. The humanitarian situation in Libya was fairly unique. You had a set of tank brigades willing to attack dissidents, and responsible for thousands of casualties and with the prospect of more thousands to come, where aerial intervention by the world community could make a quick and effective difference.”

“What happens if 90 days of bombing doesn’t succeed in removing Qaddafi? What happens if a more successful revolution leads to anarchy or civil war or a regime that key officials in the United States government don’t like? Obviously, if you assume that the intervention will be short and effective it’s easy to make the case, but I don’t think that it’s prudent to make that assumption. I think we need to consider what happens in non-best-case scenarios, and certainly Cole doesn’t have good answers to these questions. So I hope that he’s right that the strikes on Libya will be short-term and efficacious, but I remain skeptical.”

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Ben

Two things I would say about Lemieux’ response:

1) Cole’s assumption that the UN-approved NATO mission can remain limited is presented as unsupported. It’s not. Lemieux quotes only the first sentence of this paragraph:

Assuming that NATO’s UN-authorized mission in Libya really is limited ( it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole, however distasteful it is to have Nicolas Sarkozy grandstanding. Of course he is not to be trusted by progressives, but he is to his dismay increasingly boxed in by international institutions, which limits the damage he could do as the bombing campaign comes to an end (Qaddafi only had 2000 tanks, many of them broken down, and it won’t be long before he has so few, and and the rebels have captured enough to level the playing field, that little further can be accomplished from the air).

Juan Cole knows more about Libya’s military and about its social and political dynamics than the vast majority of commentators on this subject (myself included). He’s not prone to making slipshod or baseless assumptions.

2) Regarding Cole’s “straw manning” of the anti-interventionists, on what tangible, case-specific basis are the more strongly feeling among the anti-interventionists grounding their stance? My sense has been that their case has centred on a combination of exactly the abstract principles Cole identified, and just general war fatigue and skepticism after the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan (which Cole makes a very strong case are not analogous to Libya). It has not often demonstrated any real interest in the particularities of the current Libyan situation.

This isn’t to suggest (and Cole doesn’t) that that is the only anti-interventionist case. But I agree with him that it’s the dominant one in the discourse right now.

Tom

1) Appeals to authority work in the hard sciences better than the social sciences. As Lemieux says, Cole “may be right, but [it's] a hell of an assumption, isn’t it?” The point non-interventionists are trying to make is that the interventionists are all simply taking for granted that the best case scenario (or something incredibly similar) will play out. All of the, “This could go horribly wrong”-talk is dismissed as unserious, not credible. As Lemieux puts it, “Obviously, if you assume that the intervention will be short and effective it’s easy to make the case, but I don’t think that it’s prudent to make that assumption.”

2) I think you’re coming at this all wrong: the burden of justification is not on the anti-interventionists when it comes to a decision to effectively declare war. That is, “You say you have a justification and a plan for this war, PROVE IT” is always a better argument than “You say you have reasons to be skeptical of this war, PROVIDE THEM IN THE GREATEST LEVEL OF DETAIL IMAGINABLE.”

“War fatigue,” as you so dismissively put it, and “skepticism” are good traits to have when it comes to putting lives at risk. Lemieux again: “I think we need to consider what happens in non-best-case scenarios, and certainly Cole doesn’t have good answers to these questions.” He’s not saying that Libya is at all like Iraq or Afghanistan, but I do think it’s worth keeping our two most recent wars in mind. Why? Because what they teach us above all is that things don’t go according to plan in war. The plans now may very well be better than they were in those two disasters (count me as skeptical on that front, too, but let’s assume it for the sake of argument), but even if they were the awesomest plans EVAR, things would still be bungled. That’s the nature of guns and bombs being deployed in countries our foreign policy establishment doesn’t really understand.

That said, a week and change into the bombing campaign, our plans and our endgame aren’t at all clear now. It’s not the doves who merit a shakedown here. It is never the doves who merit a shakedown. War is serious fucking business, lest you forget.

B

1) It’s neither true of me nor is it true of Cole that we’re dismissing the “this could go horribly wrong”-talk as unserious or not credible. In both our cases what seems like the most likely outcome of intervention is being weighed against the most likely outcome of non-intervention. Even if it doesn’t last only three months. Even if, like in Bosnia, the intervention lasts a year an a half, I still think it would be worth it to have stopped the kind of civillian massacre that Cole describes Qaddafi as already having begun undertaking just prior to the intervention.

It seems unlikely at this point that Gaddafi can sustain himself. He’s too diplomatically isolated. He has literally no outside allies to supply him. Libya is not like Iraq or Afghanistan. For one, Obama won’t commit ground troops before the fighting has settled down, at which point I might see the US committing troops as part of a Bosnia-style UN peace-keeping mission. Granted I could be wrong and Obama could put troops on the ground before the fighting has settled, but I’d say there’s like a 5% chance at most that I am.

And fuck your whole “Appeals to authority work in the hard sciences better than the social sciences” bullshit. Contrary to your implication, it is possible in the social sciences to know relevantly more about a subject than other people. In matters of Middle Eastern politics, I take Cole and Nicholas Kristof over Greenwald and Lemieux any day. Just like I would take Greenwald over Cole or Kristof in matters of American civil rights. Of course Cole and Kristof don’t know “for sure” what’s going to play out, but their opinions are at least derived from some real knowledge of the actual situation on the ground. And in contrast to Cole and Kristof, I see no reason to think that Lemieux has any of the requisite knowledge that might equip him to evaluate what exactly is the best, worst or likeliest scenario going forward. Maybe I’m wrong.

2) I’m not saying there aren’t reasons to be skeptical. What I’m saying is that Greenwald et alii show no apparent interest in engaging with the real arguments for why the intervention is worth staying our skepticism for, at least for now. Many have chosen to act like the only pro-interventionists are pro-Iraq war neocons. I’d love them to follow Lemieux’s lead and engage seriously with people like Cole or Kristof or Romeo Dallaire.

And I didn’t mean “war fatigue” to sound dismissive. It’s a totally valid fatigue. But it has nothing to do with Libya. And I think it’s immoral to come down strongly on one side of this argument or another without at least taking into serious consideration the particularities of the Libyan situation.

Regarding the “endgame”: the endgame isn’t really up to us. As long as the international operation remains in a supporting role to the rebels, the end game is really up to them. And there are real signs that they’re making progress towards it. Gaddafi is running out of sources of fuel, the rebels are advancing, and the more plausible it is that he could be defeated, the less he can command loyalty on the basis of his peoples’ fear of his later retribution.

What I’m most nervous about is that the rebels, once in power, are going to make this about tribe and commit human rights abuses of their own. This is why I think the groundwork should be laid now for an on-the-ground UN peacekeeping mission for immediately after Gaddafi falls.

T

1) I’m not trying to discount expertise in an area, and I would certainly hope that President Obama wouldn’t appoint me Secretary of State. The basic point is that people are messy and unpredictable creatures. Making grand prognostications about how they will behave in response to a stimulus (especially when that stimulus is a bombing campaign) is tricky business.

You kind of admit this. Take the relative certainty of this:

“In both our cases what seems like the most likely outcome of intervention is being weighed against the most likely outcome of non-intervention. Even if it doesn’t last only three months. Even if, like in Bosnia, the intervention lasts a year an a half, I still think it would be worth it to have stopped the kind of civillian massacre that Cole describes Qaddafi as already having started just prior to the intervention.”

and contrast it with this:

“What I’m most nervous about is that the rebels, once in power, are going to make this about tribe and commit human rights abuses of their own. This is why I think the groundwork should be laid now for an on-the-ground UN peacekeeping mission for immediately after Gaddafi falls.”

So you think the most likely outcome is that we force Gadaffi from power: me too! But you’re not sure what happens next, or what consequences a rebel victory will have for our own involvement: me neither! But you think it’s worth it anyway because you hope things will be better under the rebel leadership and that we’ll be able to extract ourselves with relative ease: that’s where you fucking lose me, boss!

There is no endgame here; as you say, “it isn’t really up to us,” it’s up to the rebels. The difference is that you think that’s okay, and I don’t. See you in a Friedman unit.

B

To be honest, I’d be much more nervous if Obama did declare some kind of endgame. Why? Because it would make the conflict about America. As I’ve argued, after the first priority of minimizing Gaddafi’s war crimes, the next priority is keeping this conflict as much about the Arabs and as little about the international intervenors as possible. Yes I’m nervous, but as I said, the alternatives were these: (a) We don’t intervene and things go horribly, or (b) we do intervene in a limited fashion, and things might not go horribly. Things might even go qualifiedly well, where well is defined as Libya being a buttress for rather than a counterweight to the mass democratization movement happening right now in the Middle East (which is the biggest reason to me why this is not the same as Iraq / Afghanistan).

But to assure you that I’ve looked it in the face: until ground forces are committed, the worst outcome for the US is that a new Gaddafi comes to power and commits atrocities comparable to what would have been committed anyway. Come that moment, we’ll be faced with another choice: Are we willing to intervene on the ground? That’s a question that would be stupid to try to answer while the whole situation is purely hypothetical. I can see scenarios where I could fall on either side of the question. And it all depends on what kind of ground commitment is proposed.

Keep in mind, the problem with the case for Iraq, like the problem with the case for Vietnam, was that it had nothing to do with the actual situation in either of those countries. Let’s not make the same mistake by ignoring the actual situation in Libya.

T

So you prefer vague goals without a timeline to a clear goal and a step-by-step outline of how to get there? Okay.

If the argument for US involvement isn’t even made clear to the American people, how do you expect the Arab community to respond?

This whole thing is already showing signs of mission creep: the Times’ roundup today surprisingly admits this when they point out that the UN resolution’s authorization to “protect civilians” has been stretched to include bombing Gadaffi’s forces. Additionally, the UN resolution called for a complete arms embargo in Libya — i.e., no supplying the rebels with munitions, which is probably being violated covertly.

The question about whether to intervene on the ground is hardly an abstraction. It’s a very real possibility for a number of potential scenarios, among them the one you provide, but additionally it’ll be considered if Gadaffi holds power, or if a loyalist insurgency carries out a prolonged terror campaign, or if Libya collapses into failed state-dom, a la Somalia.

The non-interventionists point to all of these as very plausible outcomes — at least as plausible as a situation in which the rebels thwart Gadaffi and form a coherent, friendly, relatively open government. The onus is one the interventionists to explain them away, and you haven’t even tried.

B

So you prefer vague goals without a timeline to a clear goal and a step-by-step outline of how to get there? Okay.

The goals aren’t that vague: (1) Prevent Gaddafi from defeating the rebels; (2) Minimize atrocities against civilians as much as is possible from the air (which, yes, involves destroying armored units being used to shell civilians).

Once those goals are achieved, we can start to talk about goals like democracy, etc.

Additionally, the UN resolution called for a complete arms embargo in Libya — i.e., no supplying the rebels with munitions, which is probably being violated covertly.

They are being violated covertly, by Egypt. I’ve seen no evidence that they’re being violated by the US, France, Britain, Canada, etc… but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I’m not thrilled about the idea that it is, but if it speeds up Gaddafi’s defeat, then it’s hard to be 100% against it. The longer he’s in power, the more the people stuck in his sphere of influence are going to suffer (e.g., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUNBXR1-9Lk).

The question about whether to intervene on the ground is hardly an abstraction. It’s a very real possibility for a number of potential scenarios, among them the one you provide, but additionally it’ll be considered if Gadaffi holds power, or if a loyalist insurgency carries out a prolonged terror campaign, or if Libya collapses into failed state-dom, a la Somalia.

These are plausible scenarios that need to be faced when they come. I see none of them as clearly worse, though, than the almost certain scenario that would have resulted had Gaddafi been allowed to subdue Benghazi. Already, credible estimates put the number of civilians killed by Gaddafi’s forces in the city at several thousand (the rebels’ estimate, as reported by Cole, is 8000 which is comparable to the Srebrenica massacre if true, but should obviously be taken with a grain of salt). Had things continued along that trajectory, I have no doubt that the civilian death toll would have multiplied as Gaddafi purged and terrorized to re-consolidate his power. Do you doubt? Meanwhile, the message the West sends to the other M.E. dictators is something like “Use brute terrorizing force to put down your revolutions. The West doesn’t actually give a fuck.”

The point is that even accepting these scenarios as very real possibilities (they can’t be “explained away”), I still think there’s no moral argument against the intervention in the limited form that it’s taken. Again, the point is that we’ve created the possibility for things not to end calamitously. That’s worth a lot.

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That’s where things lie for now, but stay tuned, sports fans! If everyone claps their hands, Tink won’t die and Tom and I might do a podcast debate about this later this week (assuming we can figure out how to make a podcast)! Clap! Clap! Clap!

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UPDATE 1 (BEN): Relevant.

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UPDATE 2 (TOM)

Great. Now I have Drezner to smack down, too. Okay. Here’s his conclusion of the speech he’d like Obama to give tonight (which I won’t be able to watch live because, whoops, pub trivia is more important). Remember, this is Drezner channeling Obama:

Look, I’d have loved for the messaging to be clearer, and in retrospect it would have been good if we’d had asked Congress for authorization, but this is what happens when you make foreign policy on the fly in a region wracked by revolution.  It’s not perfect, but if you think about the counterfactuals real hard, I’m fully confident that the benefits massively outweigh the costs of this intervention.  So there.

Drezner argues earlier in the piece that the worst-case scenario he can imagine is for the current situation to remain fairly static, with limited aerial bombing campaigns by NATO to allow rebel forces to control the areas they gained in the uprisings (70% of the country, including a buffer zone with Egypt in the east, and a majority of the oil fields). What can I say? Not bad for a worst-case scenario, pal! I’ll take that worst-case scenario any day of the week, buddy! That’s a hell of a worst-case scenario you’ve got there!

So, fuck Drezner. Operating under the assumption that the Worst Thing That Could Happen would be all of the gains thus realized by the rebel forces to be solidified by daily bombing campaigns is naive, or duplicitous, in the extreme. That’s not a worst-case scenario, it’s fantasy. I understand the impulse — even stronger when it comes to warmaking — to want to believe that Things Are Going Well, and You’re On The Right Side, but as I’ve tried to emphasize over and over again, things happen quickly and unpredictably in wars — perhaps even more so in those waged “on the fly.”

It’s easy to topple a weak, megalomaniacal dictator. It’s hard to build a country out of ruin. In bombing Gadaffi’s forces, we have actively taken the side of an inchoate group of “rebels” in this civil war. We now own this thing. If you’re nodding along with Drezner, stop, take a step back, examine his assumptions. Some of them are silly.

Really, though, I want to get back to you, getting back to me. I said the goals were vague. You said they weren’t. You said,

The goals aren’t that vague: (1) Prevent Gaddafi from defeating the rebels; (2) Minimize atrocities against civilians as much as is possible from the air (which, yes, involves destroying armored units being used to shell civilians).

Which goal is it? Do they work in tandem? Which one is paramount? What if Gadaffi regains the upper hand and air strikes aren’t enough? Do we go in, or do we stick to air support? In that scenario, (1) would conflict with (2). So what’s the primary goal? First door, or second door?

To which you might respond by saying, “But look, it’s working well so far, we don’t need to worry about hypotheticals,” and to which I would reply in turn, “Yes. It is. And that’s tremendous and I hope that everything goes well and unicorns are discovered by the rebel forces and we all live happily ever after, but! What if things go south? What if air support isn’t enough? What do we do then?” And it seems to me that we don’t have an answer. I suppose your position is that we wait and see. That doesn’t really work for me. That’s a little too Iraq-2003.

You ask:

Had things continued along that trajectory, I have no doubt that the civilian death toll would have multiplied as Gaddafi purged and terrorized to re-consolidate his power. Do you doubt?

No doubt at all. But purges and terror attacks by autocrats trying to re-consolidate power happen all over the world all the time. They’re happening now. Another thing the hawks never bother to explain, as if the explanation were beneath them: why this crisis? This intervention? What are we doing making war in the Middle East again? Why is an Arab humanitarian crisis deserving of our intervention when an African one is not? I will let you answer that question (Hint: FOSSIL FUELS!).

Which isn’t to say that in a realpolitik kind of way that shouldn’t be considered, but which is to say that nobody’s even honest enough to own up to it. It never finds its way to print in the drumroll to war. And I’d like people to simply acknowledge that our primary interest in Libya is resources, not humanitarianism. Humanitarian crises happen all the time. We only ever do anything about them if they’re threatening our interests.

But to admit as much would be crass, and so I’m not holding my breath.

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Update 3 (Ben): T-bone, T$, whatever it is you’re calling yourself these days, your outrage at Drezner’s worst-case scenario was very entertaining, but you completely ignored what I wrote. Do you see any reasonably likely scenario (say, like, 1 in 100 chance) that would have been worse than what would almost certainly have happened to the Libyan people had Gaddafi been allowed to subdue the rebels? You’ve already acknowledged that you see several reasonably likely scenarios that would be considerably better. I mean maybe the US and its allies’ decision to actively oppose Gaddafi will be what heats the deep and brings Cthulu out of sleep, but really? And even if there is a 1 in 100 scenario that would have been slightly worse than Gaddafi subduing the rebels, you still need to stack that risk up against the risk that things might turn out better. Even if there was, say 1 in 20 odds that things might turn out worse, a 9 in 20 they turn out the same, and a 7 in 20 they turn out slightly better and 3 in 20 they turn out significantly better than the most likely outcome had Gaddafi won sans intervention, I’d still be pro-intervention. My read is that the spread is much more favouable to slightly better and significantly better outcomes than what I’ve given int he breakdown above, and much less favorable to total disaster.

It’s easy to topple a weak, megalomaniacal dictator. It’s hard to build a country out of ruin. In bombing Gadaffi’s forces, we have actively taken the side of an inchoate group of “rebels” in this civil war. We now own this thing.

No, Tom. No one wants the US to own this thing. Not the rebels, not the international community, not me. Not in the way, at least, that the US owns Afghanistan and Iraq. As I said in my last post, the situation might come where the US will be forced to make a decision about whether or not it actually wants to take ownership of this thing, say the alternative to Gaddafi turns out to be a new Gaddafi (I would say the odds are slim, but we’re talking worst case scenarios, right?). We’re just back to where we started, which means that a few billion was wasted, which sucks, ’cause it could’ve been spent on education (not that it would have been), but as I said, small price to pay for creating a very good opportunity for the Libyans to emerge from tyranny and isolation, and to send the message to the other dictators, that while the West won’t always intervene, that next human rights abuse might just be the straw the breaks the camel’s back.

But in that scenario, there’s no obligation for the US to agree to go in. I mean, the situation would suck, but the US is not in an occupier role. No institutions outside of the rebels’ armed forces depend on a US presence the way many do in Iraq or Afghanistan. By not agreeing to a greater commitment there are plenty of arguments, based on the occupier experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, that they would in all likelihood do more harm than good. So no, Tom, the US doesn’t “own this thing.” The Arabs own this thing. As soon as the Arabs don’t own this thing (e.g. the US tries to dictate an “endgame”), we’re in real trouble.

No doubt at all. But purges and terror attacks by autocrats trying to re-consolidate power happen all over the world all the time. They’re happening now. Another thing the hawks never bother to explain, as if the explanation were beneath them: why this crisis? This intervention? What are we doing making war in the Middle East again? Why is an Arab humanitarian crisis deserving of our intervention when an African one is not? I will let you answer that question (Hint: FOSSIL FUELS!).

Many don’t, but Cole does:

Many are crying hypocrisy, citing other places an intervention could be staged or worrying that Libya sets a precedent. I don’t find those arguments persuasive. Military intervention is always selective, depending on a constellation of political will, military ability, international legitimacy and practical constraints. The humanitarian situation in Libya was fairly unique. You had a set of tank brigades willing to attack dissidents, and responsible for thousands of casualties and with the prospect of more thousands to come, where aerial intervention by the world community could make a quick and effective difference.

This situation did not obtain in the Sudan’s Darfur, where the terrain and the conflict were such that aerial intervention alone would have have been useless and only boots on the ground could have had a hope of being effective. But a whole US occupation of Iraq could not prevent Sunni-Shiite urban faction-fighting that killed tens of thousands, so even boots on the ground in Darfur’s vast expanse might have failed.

The other Arab Spring demonstrations are not comparable to Libya, because in none of them has the scale loss of life been replicated, nor has the role of armored brigades been as central, nor have the dissidents asked for intervention, nor has the Arab League. For the UN, out of the blue, to order the bombing of Deraa in Syria at the moment would accomplish nothing and would probably outrage all concerned. Bombing the tank brigades heading for Benghazi made all the difference.

That is, in Libya intervention was demanded by the people being massacred as well as by the regional powers, was authorized by the UNSC, and could practically attain its humanitarian aim of forestalling a massacre through aerial bombardment of murderous armored brigades. And, the intervention could be a limited one and still accomplish its goal.

So, in addition to the incentive of stabilizing a major oil producer, there are a number of strategic advantages particular to Libya.

As for the oil thing, I mean, yeah, of course that’s a motivator (Libya’s in the top 10 in terms of reserves), and it sucks that it has to be, but if that’s what it takes, then I’ll take it.

As for me, I’d love to see a real and serious debate about how the international community could contribute to improving the human rights situation in Sierra Leone, the Congo, etc. etc. I would be thrilled. But it’s not going to happen, most obviously because Russia and China won’t let it happen. For some reason, they didn’t stifle this case. Again, I’ll take it.

But looping back to the endgame discussion, I want to quote something you said earlier:

So you prefer vague goals without a timeline to a clear goal and a step-by-step outline of how to get there?

And again:

The basic point is that people are messy and unpredictable creatures. Making grand prognostications about how they will behave in response to a stimulus (especially when that stimulus is a bombing campaign) is tricky business.

No one has ever agreed with anything as much as I agree with your second statement there. You certainly don’t if you seriously think the first statement is reasonable. Again, I’m arguing for limited goals: Don’t let Gaddafi subdue the rebels. Do what’s possible from the air to minimize human rights abuses. Can these goals conceivably come into conflict? Sure. Does that possibility constitute a reason they should be thrown out now? Of course not. But that’s so obvious I’m having a hard time believing that’s what you’re suggesting. What it does mean is that we have a responsibility to keep watching, and make sure that if and when they do come into conflict, the negotiation over how to resolve them is as public as it can be.