Intervention in Libya

Marc Lynch writes:

The unfolding situation in Libya has been horrible to behold. No matter how many times we warn that dictators will do what they must to stay in power, it is still shocking to see the images of brutalized civilians which have been flooding al-Jazeera and circulating on the internet. We should not be fooled by Libya’s geographic proximity to Egypt and Tunisia, or guided by the debates over how the United States could best help a peaceful protest movement achieve democratic change. The appropriate comparison is Bosnia or Kosovo, or even Rwanda where a massacre is unfolding on live television and the world is challenged to act. It is time for the United States, NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League to act forcefully to try to prevent the already bloody situation from degenerating into something much worse.

By acting, I mean a response sufficiently forceful and direct to deter or prevent the Libyan regime from using its military resources to butcher its opponents. I have already seen reports that NATO has sternly warned Libya against further violence against its people. Making that credible could mean the declaration and enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, presumably by NATO, to prevent the use of military aircraft against the protestors. It could also mean a clear declaration that members of the regime and military will be held individually responsible for any future deaths. The U.S. should call for an urgent, immediate Security Council meeting and push for a strong resolution condeming Libya’s use of violence and authorizing targeted sanctions against the regime. Such steps could stand a chance of reversing the course of a rapidly deteriorating situation. An effective international response could not only save many Libyan lives, it might also send a powerful warning to other Arab leaders who might contemplate following suit against their own protest movements.

Mark Leon Goldberg responds:

There has been a sort-of coalescing around the idea that a No Fly Zone is useful way to intervene to stop the killing. I am not so sure. While it is true that some of the slaughter has been perpetrated by Libyan air force, air assets alone are not responsible for the killing. If Qaddafi and his inner circle are intent on violently suppressing this revolt, they will use their superior ground forces as well.

A No Fly Zone is a humanitarian half measure. It would let the international community say that it is doing something, but there is very little a No Fly Zone can actually do to stop ongoing slaughter. Using Lynch’s comparisons to slaughters of the 1990s, people need to ask themselves: would a no-fly zone have stopped the Machete wielding Interhamwe from perpetrating the Rwandan genocide? Definitely not. In Bosnia, there was an effective NATO enforced no fly zone over in 1995 when Srebrenica occurred. During the 1999 Kosovo air campaign, as NATO was bombing Serbia, Serb forces accelerated their ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. No Fly Zone’s may be good at enforcing a stalemate like interwar Iraq, but it is lousy at preventing slaughter.

This is not to say there is no utility in trying to enforce one over Libya—as Marc Lynch says, it could be one of several demonstrations of the resolve of the international community (along with multilateral sanctions and, perhaps, a Security Council referral to the ICC.) But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that a no-fly zone is an effective humanitarian response to a mass slaughter event. It is a gesture. Not a response.

If stopping a slaughter is our top priority, then a more robust response is probably required. That means not just preventing airplanes and attack helicopters from flying over Libya, but defeating the Libyan military infrastructure that is perpetrating the violence. The word for that is war.

At a moment of crisis — a moment when there are global expectations that an American president might act or at least speak out in a decisive way — Barack Obama goes missing.

At the height of Israel’s war on Gaza, when Iran’s Green Movement was being crushed, and when Mubarak’s thugs were attacking peaceful protesters in Egypt, what did Obama do? He monitored the situation. And at the darkest hour, he took cover and had nothing to say.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Obama administration expressed fears Libya could be headed for civil war, as a decade of U.S. diplomatic outreach to Col. Moammar Gadhafi still appeared to leave Washington with little influence in the north African country.

U.S. officials Monday appealed for end of violence in Libya, amid signs of splits inside Col. Gadhafi’s military and diplomatic corps. The State Department, meanwhile, ordered its embassy staff out of Tripoli.

“It’s a deteriorating situation, and you can’t rule out at this stage a civil war,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on Libya. “We don’t have significant influence over the events, given the regime seems willing to do anything to survive.”

Only yesterday, the administration was clinging onto the fanciful possibility that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi might be offering some kind of “meaningful reform.”

Now, as observers (and Libyans) start calling for intervention, it’s not clear whether there’s an effective form this could take and even less clear that an international consensus will emerge, least of all inside the UN Security Council.

Yet if Obama breaks his silence, he could say this: “Libya’s fate is in the hands of the Libyan people and I join with Yusuf al-Qaradawi in hoping this crisis reaches a swift and decisive conclusion.”

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4 thoughts on “Intervention in Libya

  1. Renfro

    I don’t buy there is nothing the US can do.
    We have planes in Bahrain –we could clear out their AF—what’s left of it–some have already defected.
    Little can be done about the mercs on the ground without an invasion but never ubderestimate a show of force as an unnerving agent. I’d have US planes in the air 24/7 to rattle the cage.
    And the psychopath is in his castle in Tripoli– and bomb it—psychopaths aren’t crazy,they are just without conscience and have only one one motivation, self preservation.
    The more the US says it can’t do anything and doesn’t do anything, the quicker this will reach genocide levels.
    We CAN do something, Obama just won’t do it.

  2. Greg

    The age of armed humanitarian interventions is over, at least for the time being. There is almost no cause over which the UN security council can unite.

    I would be delighted to be proved wrong. The examples are endless, but the one that sticks in my mind is when the world sat back and watched somewhere upwards of 20,000 Tamils get killed a couple of years ago, shaking their heads and saying there was nothing they could do. In the view of the international community, there is no price too high for citizens to pay for their own emancipation, especially when they are going to fail.

  3. scott

    Not a smart suggestion. If US planes attacked that indeed might rally the military behind Libya. I have the same urge to help, but there’s not much we can do. Our cars and our consumers don’t care where oil comes from, and all these “sanctions” are simply lip service.

  4. Christopher Hoare

    If strong statements, backed by sanctions, a no-fly zone, and irreversible intentions to bring the state’s murderers to trial cannot do anything — what the hell do we have a Security Council for? There are likely many Libyans who are in a position to act against Qadhafi if they believed they would not be acting alone in a lost cause — they need to see that someone actually cares.

    If Cyrenaica is Free Libya, then a no fly zone to protect the region from air attack is neccesary. A few convoys from Egypt with weapons that can help the populace defend themselves with would be an active signal to Qadhafi’s goon squads that they’d better be looking to their own exit routes out if the country.

    Sitting and twisting one’s hands, and saying “Oh dear” is just not good enough, Obama.

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