JONATHAN COHN MARCH 24, 2011
Editor's Note: On Wednesday, I raised several questions about our intervention in Libya. Not long afterwards, Heather Hurlburt e-mailed with some answers. Readers may recognize Heather from her past contributions to this blog. A former speechwriter and foreign policy adviser in the Clinton Administration, she has also worked for the International Crisis Group, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Congressional Helsinki Commission. She is currently executive director of the National Security Network.
Jonathan has raised some thoughtful questions about the Libya intervention that deserve thoughtful answers. I’ll offer three and then ask a question of my own:
Are there “more urgent priorities”? It is painfully true that in Washington, the urgent crowds out the important. However, neither politicians nor journalists have unilateral power to determine what counts as “urgent.” In this case, a group of foreign powers--France, Britain, Egypt and the Arab League—made that decision for them. Once they declared that the situation in Libya was an urgent priority, it’s wishful thinking to suggest that Obama could have somehow patted them on their heads and sent them home.
Moreover, the idea that Libya has “low strategic value” argument (as Richard Haas, among others, has argued) ignores some emerging geopolitical realities: The US has a pretty key interest in Egypt and Tunisia, Libya’s neighbors, being able to develop stable, democratic governments. Gaddafi’s fondness for meddling, and the reality that the Libya fighting was already generating huge refugee flows, posed a threat to that development. The US also has a strategic interest in responding to Arab governments who are attempting to be more responsive to their populations, e.g. through the Arab League. This is why Secretary Clinton referred to the Arab League request as a “game-changer.”
How well can a no-fly zone prevent massacres? Air power may have only limited affect against massacres conducted, as Gaddafi’s gruesomely threatened, by soldiers or henchmen going house to house, slitting throats. On the other hand, Gaddafi was also threatening to slaughter his people with more organized and mechanized military operations. Last Friday morning the world was grimly awaiting the sack of Benghazi and an attendant slaughter of thousands. That didn’t happen; and it now appears that Gaddafi will not be able to enter new areas and commit mayhem on the scale he threatened. The hell of atrocity prevention is proving a negative. Nick Kristof writes movingly this morning about Libyans convinced that the action has saved thousands of lives, even as reporting confirms that fighting and killing by ground forces continues. Those lives saved matter – and they matter for US interests, not “just” for our shared humanity.
Can we trust the rebels? Of course we shouldn’t trust the rebels. And we shouldn’t tell ourselves the story that we’re just empowering another Tahrir Square. We should be skeptical, frantically collecting information, hedging our bets and figuring out what the various forces are in Libya and how we can promote better outcomes and hedge against worse ones – chiefly, empowering local extremist forces, drawing in neighboring country militaries and/or the territory becoming a free-fire zone for outsiders. But trusting/not trusting the rebels has little to do with the geostrategic or humanitarian considerations outlined above.
I am less frantic about the endgame than many observers, not because I am more sanguine but because very often planners who have a clear endgame in mind are deluding themselves anyway. (The architects of the Iraq War believed they had thought through how everything would play out.). But that brings me to the largest point. International affairs are messy. Policy solutions are suboptimal. Different actors have interests which align only partially. And military responses of necessity involve killing.
Like every other armchair observer, I can tick off a list of things my Administration friends might have done differently. But it’s too late now. What matters is this: Are lives saved? More than could have been done some other way which was available to decision-makers when they chose this approach? Is the US position and ability to protect our interests in the region and at the UN enhanced or degraded? Are our laws, society and decision-making systems here at home enhanced or degraded?
What matters now is having a War Powers vote within 60 days, as the law provides--and debating these issues in that time.