Jonathan Chait

Obama, Libya, And Status Quo Bias

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Sudarsan Raghavan of the Washington Post reports on the sickening unearthing of a secret prison in Libya:

IN BENGHAZI, LIBYA Peering into a subterranean jail, Adil Gnaybor shuddered with fear. Rusted prison bars once covered with earth were now exposed, dug up by rebels who had discovered the secret labyrinth of cells. The space was too small for Gnaybor's 5-foot frame, and a white tube provided the only source of air.

"If I go inside there, perhaps I will die," Gnaybor said, staring into the hole.

Thousands of Libyans have been arriving here at a complex of palatial homes, known as the Katiba El Fadil bu Omar, where Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi stayed during visits to this port city. It is here that Gaddafi also had an underground prison. ...

Al-Badri, a 62-year-old who came with his three daughters, said: "I expect anything from Gaddafi. He could bomb Benghazi, even use chemical weapons." He declined to give his full name, for fear that he would be targeted if Gaddafi returned.

"What is America waiting for?" he continued. "Until Gaddafi manages to kill all the Libyan people?"

I'm mindful of my lack of relevant expertise, but the case for a no-fly zone and arms shipments to the rebels seems more compelling than the case against. It's the possibility of a disaster against the likelihood of one. Leon Wieseltier's online column is very powerful. Tom Ricks argues, "This does remind me a lot of Bosnia '94."

Let me add a couple thoughts of my own. Generally, uprisings like these can succeed on their own because they reach a critical mass where the regime loses all legitimacy, and the military will no longer intervene to save it. That calculation fails when the regime has a massive oil slush fund that it can use to hire foreign mercenaries.

Second, the Obama administration's decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan show that it's obviously not allergic to the use of military force. Rather, it seems to have an extremely strong status quo bias. The policy rationale for aiding Libya's rebels seems clearly stronger than the policy rationale for pressing on in Afghanistan. Yet here we are. You can justify each decision on its own terms, of course. But it appears to me that the level of fear of American intervention in the Middle East displayed by Obama here -- a level strong enough to foreclose a no-fly zone in defense of, and aid to, an indigenous uprising -- would also be strong enough to push it out of one or both of its current wars. Instead, we simply have status quo across the board.

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