Columns / Discourse / April 27, 2011

Voice of Reason: Back to Libya

Though I tend not to like to revisit topics, prompted by recent events, and faced with the unenviable alternative of formulating an opinion on a certain impending royal wedding; I’m turning my attention back to Libya. As the world gradually stops paying attention, the Western allies are quietly stepping up their efforts to support the Benghazi government in the form of the deployment of military personnel to Benghazi. These personnel will help train rebel forces to, along with Predator drones, help hit a wider range of targets from the air.

Though this may seem like fairly typical conduct for a war, this wasn’t supposed to be that kind of war. This was the supposed to be the showcase of the new Obama-era of multilateral intervention. The entire world community was to get behind well-shared NATO intervention in order to protect civilians from being massacred after government forces reclaimed rebellious territories. This was going to involve only strikes from the air, and it was going to be short in duration because Qaddafi’s inner circle would revolt in the face of increasing battlefield losses.

At least that was how it was supposed to work; but wars have a nasty habit of taking longer than politicians want them to. The wishful thinking that was sure Qaddafi’s staunchest supports would do our work for us has proven false. This leaves serious questions as to whether any of the premises of this war that were sold to the American people are still valid.

The rest of the world has not proven that it can effectively contribute to this new internationalism. NATO has had all sorts of problems establishing a clear command structure, and some members (most notably Turkey) have been hesitant to contribute real help. The Arab League has proven that its endorsement of military action was a one-time deal specific to Qaddafi, which they have shown by doing nothing to support democratic uprisings in Syria or Bahrain and even endorsing Saudi Arabia’s incursion into Bahrain in support of the government there. Meanwhile, the African Union has endorsed Qaddafi as a “man of peace” while Russia and China maintain their usual critical and obstructionist stances, with the Russian foreign minister claiming the Western intervention will trigger wars across the Middle East.

All of this seems to lead directly to something that the war’s defenders swore would never happen—the direct deployment of troops. If sending military advisors to train rebel forces and deploying Predator drones (which are notorious for causing civilian deaths in Pakistan) count as protecting civilians, then “protecting civilians” seems to cover virtually anything the West wants to do in regards to Libya. Though we’ve been promised that no ground troops will be deployed, the rebels have, for the first time, openly begun to ask for them, providing an easy justification for Western leaders that wasn’t there before. The most relevant contemporary example to Western actions in Libya, our Balkan intervention in the 1990s, began with air strikes and eventually led to the deployment of NATO troops. Some of them are still there.

If this were to happen in Libya, it would very likely not have UN approval. China and Russia can both veto any expansion of the mandate, and Russia has already said it feels the West has overstepped the first one. That means that if the Libyan stalemate continues and casualties mount pressure would build on President Obama as well as the leaders of other NATO countries to either step up Western commitment to the rebels yet again, this time without UN approval, or risk being seen as “losing Libya.” The possibility of a “coalition of the willing” being deployed to the Middle East in violation of the will of the UN is not out of the question. Perhaps this time we would be greeted as liberators. Perhaps not.

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