Tag: Libya

NATO: An Alliance Past Its Prime

On May 20, the 2012 NATO Chicago summit will bring together the heads of state from the alliance. The agenda reads like a rundown of major world events in the past two years: the Arab Spring, the Libyan civil war, the global financial crisis, and the war in Afghanistan. It seems no problem is too big for NATO.

Of these topics, the most pressing and headline-grabbing will be the plan NATO and the United States establish to gradually turn responsibility for security in Afghanistan over to the Afghan national forces. But also of note are the topics—“lessons learned from Libya,” and the “Smart Defense Initiative,”—that display the reliance of Europe on the United States for advanced military capabilities. Libya in particular showcased Europe’s inability to act without the U.S.

The lessons from Libya are two-fold, and it is important to keep them in mind as policymakers and pundits in Washington call for the next U.S. intervention, possibly in Syria or Iran. First, the results so far have been disappointing for America’s latest stab at coercive democratization.

Libya also was a disappointment as a supposed new model for U.S. intervention. In fact, that conflict reinforces the fact that NATO really stands for North America and The Others. Without the U.S., the Europeans would be essentially helpless.

A new alliance study underscores Europe’s relative ineffectiveness. Reports the New York Times:

Despite widespread praise in Western capitals for NATO’s leadership of the air campaign in Libya, a confidential NATO assessment paints a sobering portrait of the alliance’s ability to carry out such campaigns without significant support from the United States.

The report concluded that the allies struggled to share crucial target information, lacked specialized planners and analysts, and overly relied on the United States for reconnaissance and refueling aircraft.

This should surprise no one. After all, during the war against Serbia—another nation which had not threatened America or any American ally—Europe was estimated to have a combat effectiveness less than 15 percent that of the U.S. The Europeans had large conscript armies, but outside of Britain and France had very little ability to project power. Later European participation in Afghanistan has been marred by the dozens of national “caveats” limiting participation in combat.

Yet alliance expansion is also on the agenda for the May NATO summit in Chicago. The list of alliance-wannabes includes such powerhouses as Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia. Former Soviet republics notable mostly for their tangled and/or troubled relations with Russia—Georgia and Ukraine—are also on the list. All of these nations would be security liabilities, not assets, for America.

As the NATO study demonstrates, should the alliance’s Article 5 commitment get invoked, America would do most of the fighting. It would be one thing to take that risk where vital interests were at stake. But they are not in the Balkans, let alone in the Caucasus, which was part of Imperial Russia even before the Soviet Union.

Alliances should reflect the security environment. The Cold War is over. The Europeans have developed, the Soviet Union is kaput, and the potential European conflicts of the future—distant and unlikely—are linked to no hegemonic threat against America.

Instead of talking about NATO expansion, the U.S. should set down the burden of defending Europe. Let the Europeans take over NATO or create their own European defense organization, as they have discussed for years. The latest reminder of Europe’s relative military ineffectiveness reinforces the case for ending the continent’s cheap ride. It is time to turn North America and The Others into simply The Others.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Intervention in Libya and Syria Isn’t Humanitarian or Liberal

Proponents of foreign military intervention in Libya argued that giving air support to rebels there would spread liberalism and save Libyan lives. But the success of that revolution has thus far delivered political chaos destructive to both ends. That result is worth noting as backers of the Libya intervention offer it as a model for aiding Syrian rebels in the name of similar goals.

Advocates of both interventions underestimate coercion’s contribution to political order. Autocratic rule in these countries is partially a consequence of state weakness—the absence of strong liberal norms, government institutions, and nationalism. By helping to remove the levers of coercion in places like Libya and Syria, we risk producing anarchy—continual civil war or long-lived violent disorder. Either outcome would likely worsen suffering through widespread murder, a collapse of sanitation and health services, and stunted economic growth conducive to well-being. And the most promising paths to new of forms of unity and order in these states are illiberal: religious rule, war, or new autocrats. The humanitarian and liberal cases for these interventions are unconvincing.

Aside from Qaddafi’s fall, U.S. leaders gave three primary rationales for military intervention Libya (I repeatedly criticized them last spring). One was to show other dictators that the international community would not tolerate the violent suppression of dissenters. That reverse domino theory has obviously failed. If Qaddafi’s fate taught neighboring leaders like Bashar al-Assad anything, it is to brutally nip opposition movements in the bud before they coalesce, attract foreign arms and air support, and kill you, or, if you’re lucky, ship you off to the Hague.

The second rationale was the establishment of liberal democracy. But Libya, like Syria, lacks the traditional building blocks of liberal democracy. And history suggests that foreign military intervention impedes democratization. Whether or not it manages to hold elections, Libya seems unlikely to become a truly liberal state any time soon. As with Syria, any path to that outcome is likely to be long and bloody.

Meanwhile, Libya’s revolution has destabilized Mali. Qaddafi’s fall pushed hundreds of Tuareg tribesmen that fought on his side back to their native Mali, where they promptly reignited an old insurgency. Malian military officers, citing their government’s insufficient vigor against the rebels, mounted a coup, overthrowing democracy that had lasted over twenty years. Thus far, the military intervention in Libya has reduced the number of democracies by one.

The most widely cited rationale for helping Libya’s rebels was to save civilians from the regime. Along with many commentators, President Obama and his aides insisted that Qaddafi promised to slaughter civilians in towns that his forces were poised to retake last March. Thus, intervention saved hundreds of thousands of lives. A minor problem with this claim is that Qaddafi’s speeches actually threatened rebel fighters, not civilians, and he explicitly exempted those rebels that put down arms. More importantly, if Qaddafi intended to massacre civilians, his forces had ample opportunity to do it. They did commit war crimes, using force indiscriminately and executing and torturing prisoners. But the sort of wholesale slaughter that the Obama administration warned of did not occur—maybe because the regime’s forces lacked the organization needed for systematic slaughter.

The limited nature of the regime’s brutality does not itself invalidate humanitarian concerns. It might be worthwhile to stop even a historically mild suppression of rebellion if the cost of doing so is low enough. The trouble with the humanitarian argument for intervention in Libya is instead that the intervention and the chaos it produced may ultimately cause more suffering than the atrocities it prevented. Libya’s rebel leaders have thus far failed to resurrect central authority. Hundreds of militias police cities and occasionally battle. There are many credible reports that militias have unlawfully detained thousands of regime supporters, executed others, driven mistrusted communities from their homes, and engaged in widespread torture.

The looting of Libya’s weapons stockpiles is also likely to contribute to Libya’s misery, in part by arming the militias that obstruct central authority. The weapons depots reportedly included thousands of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), some of which may still work. It is worth noting that the widely-reported claim that Libya lost 20,000 MANPADS appears exaggerated. That figure comes from Senate testimony last spring by the head of Africa Command, who did not substantiate it (my two requests to Africa’s Command PR people for information on this claim were ignored). A State Department official recently gave the same figure before essentially admitting that we have no idea what the right figure is.

No one can say with certainty whether Libya’s anarchy will produce more suffering than a Qaddafi victory would have. But that argument is plausible. Autocracies tend to serve human well-being better than chaos. That does not make it inherently immoral to help overthrow despots. It simply suggests that such interventions, whether or not they are moral or wise, do not deserve the adjective “humanitarian.”

The same goes for Syria. One need not support its brutal rulers to agree that their fall, like Gaddafi’s, is likely to produce extended illiberal chaos or another set of autocrats. I don’t know what the right U.S. policy is toward the crisis in Syria. But I doubt any policy exists that can avoid sacrificing one of our hopes for another.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Tragedy of U.S. Iran Policy

The latest orchestrated frenzy over Iran’s nuclear program is reaching a crescendo. If the Obama administration were genuinely interested in increasing the prospects for a diplomatic resolution, it would be trying to lessen Iran’s perception of insecurity. Instead, every new policy initiative on Iran heightens that insecurity. Unless Iran responds to all of this in a way that few predict it will, each day brings us closer to another war in the Middle East.

Iran likely wants a nuclear option, if not a nuclear weapon, for a variety of reasons. The most important is security. The different treatment meted out to Iraq and Libya, on the one hand, and North Korea and Pakistan on the other taught Iran that the only sure way to avoid being attacked by the United States is to acquire a nuclear arsenal. Iran also probably seeks the international prestige of being at least an incipient nuclear state.

When Iran hears the constant threats emanating from Washington—the almost daily repetitions that a preventive war is “on the table,” attempts to strangle the Iranian economy, and legislation taking containment off the table—Tehran’s belief that the United States has aggressive intentions is confirmed. Iran knows that a nuclear capability wouldn’t provide it with power projection capability or allow it to dominate the Middle East. Rather, Iran would move from being a weak state with no deterrent to a weak state with a small deterrent. Tragically, the main reason America and Israel are so frantic about the Iranian nuclear program is that neither country wishes to allow itself to be deterred by Iran. In an election year, all of the political pressure on the administration is going to push the administration to make the problem worse, not better.

Libya Begets Syria?

A little over a year ago, as members of the Obama administration were pondering military intervention in Libya, skeptics (including The Skeptics) pressed them to explain how that situation differed from other comparable cases elsewhere in the world. If Libya, why not Yemen? Why not Bahrain? Why not Syria? We may soon learn the answer to that last question. And their too-permissive—or merely haphazard—approach a year ago might pave the way for an intervention in Syria that would be ill-advised, if not disastrous.

At the time of the Libya debate (to the extent that there was one), the president and his foreign-policy advisers dismissed concerns that the intervention in Libya would set a precedent. “It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs,” President Obama said in a televised speech to the nation on March 28, 2011. But, he continued:

that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country—Libya—at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale… To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and, more profoundly, our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.

At other times, the administration alluded to a loose set of guidelines to explain why it might choose to use force, guidelines which the Libya case met but other cases supposedly did not. These included the likelihood that a large-scale loss of life was imminent; the belief that prompt military action would prevent this violence; and the support of the international community, ideally a formal sanction in the UNSC (absent that, the approval of a regional body, such as the Arab League, might suffice).

Notably absent was sufficient consideration of whether our vital strategic interests were at stake. They were not in Libya, and they are not in Syria.

We should strive to avoid foreign intervention in all but very rare cases. Because getting in is always much easier than getting out, the burden of proof must always be on those making the case for war, not those advising against.

Beyond that, we must know what mission the U.S. military has been tasked with performing. We must have a reasonable estimate of the likelihood that it will achieve its mission. And we must have some sense of the likely costs in blood and treasure. Finally, we are a nation of laws, not of men—and decidedly not of one man. The president has very little authority to send troops into harm’s way, and he has none when U.S. security is not at stake (a criteria that Barack Obama endorsed as a senator but abandoned when he assumed a higher office). If the Obama administration is considering military action to remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, it should obtain formal congressional authorization for such action. And it should do that before going to the United Nations.

No other country is afforded such choices. No other country is able to project power over great distances and on very short notice. No other country has a track record of frequent foreign intervention, even when such operations have no direct connection to advancing our own security. This pattern of behavior constitutes our unique power problem. It is precisely because the United States has used force on numerous occasions over the past two decades that we need a particularly stringent set of criteria governing our future interventions. There is an almost endless parade of aggrieved parties calling on Uncle Sam to save them from harm. And when Washington refuses, or merely drags its heels, they will say: You fought to save Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, why do you then refuse to aid Muslims in Northern Africa or the Levant? The United States must have a ready answer.

But the Obama administration, cheered on or goaded by liberal and neoconservative hawks, does not have one. Yet. And its halting signals are likely to embolden those calling for yet another war.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Will Obama’s Libya ‘Victory’ Aid Re-Election Bid?

It is well established that presidents do not gain much of anything when they launch unsuccessful military ventures. However, they generally don’t gain much from successful ones either. The public does not seem to be interested in rewarding—or even remembering—foreign policy success.

The data are now in on the most recent such military venture: the expedition in Libya. The United States and its NATO allies materially supported popular rebels in their ultimately successful efforts to overthrow the decidedly unpopular regime of Muammar Qaddafi, efforts that resulted in the terminal demise of Qaddafi, a certifiable devil du jour in the American mind for decades. And all this at no cost in American lives.

After the rebel success and the death of the dictator in November, CBS News conducted a poll and asked a fairly mild question about the mission. It revealed that the public was quite capable of containing its enthusiasm for the venture, no matter how successful it may seem to have been:

Although it seems unlikely the venture will hurt President Obama’s reelection prospects, it seems equally unlikely it will furnish him with any real bragging rights.

The same thing happened in 1999 during Bill Clinton’s war over Kosovo, a venture that seemed considerably more risky and that inspired much more attention. As the bombs were being dropped there in support of the persecuted Albanian side, quite a few press accounts argued that the presidential ambitions and political future of Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, hung in the balance. From the standpoint of public opinion, the Kosovo venture seems to have been a success, not the least because no American lives were lost. But when Gore launched his campaign for the presidency a few months later, he scarcely thought it important or memorable enough to bring up.

And of course there is the legendary inability of George H. W. Bush to garner much lasting electoral advantage from the Gulf War of 1991. Although the success in that huge and dramatic victory caused even his ratings on the handling of the economy to rise notably, this effect was reversed within days in the polls. His slide continued into electoral defeat in the next year.

Lesser accomplishments seem to have been at least as unrewarding. Nobody gave much credit to Bush for his earlier successful intervention in Panama, to Dwight Eisenhower for a successful venture into Lebanon in 1958, to Lyndon Johnson for success in the Dominican Republic in 1965, to Jimmy Carter for husbanding an important Middle East treaty in 1979, to Ronald Reagan for a successful invasion of Grenada in 1983 or to Bill Clinton for sending troops to help resolve the Bosnia problem in 1995. Although it is often said that the successful Falklands War of 1982 helped British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the elections of 1983, any favorable effect is confounded by the fact that the economy was improving impressively at the same time.

Even Harry Truman, who presided over the massive triumph in World War II, saw his approval plummet to impressive lows within months after the war because of domestic concerns.

And surely the ultimate case is that of Britain’s Winston Churchill. After brilliantly holding the country together during that war—at times, it seemed that the only thing the country had going for it was his rhetoric—he was summarily voted out of office a few weeks after its end. Or, as he put it, “At the outset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for the five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.”

In his perhaps-ironically titled book Triumph and Tragedy, Churchill recalls that, when the news about his electoral defeat arrived, his wife suggested, “It may well be a blessing in disguise.” Churchill replied, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.” Other victors have had reason to express similar sentiments.

Cross-posted from “The Skeptics” at the National Interest.

Wittgenstein, Private Language, and Secret Law

One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right.’ — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §258

Among the arguments for which the great 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is famous, perhaps the best known—and most controversial—is his argument for the impossibility of a truly “private language.” Since Wittgenstein’s own language was, if not quite “private,” notoriously opaque, it’s a matter of some controversy exactly what the argument is, but here’s a very crude summary of one common interpretation:

Language is, by it’s nature, a rule-governed enterprise. Under normal circumstances, for instance, I use words correctly when I say “there’s a yellow school bus outside,” just in case there is a yellow school bus outside. If, instead, there’s a blue Prius, then I may be lying, or trying to make some sort of signally unfunny joke, or confused about either the facts or about what words mean—but I am, one way or another, using the words “incorrectly.” And indeed, the only way words like “yellow” and “school bus” can have any specific meaning is if they’re correctly applied to some things, but not to others.

Now suppose I decide to invent my own private language, meant to describe my own internal sensations and mental states, maybe for the purpose of recording them in a personal diary. On the first day, I experience a particular sensation I decide to call “S,” and record in my diary: “Today I felt S.” As time passes, on some days I write S to describe my private sensations, and on other days maybe I come up with different labels—maybe T, U, and V. This certainly looks like a private language, but there’s a problem: each time I write down “S,” the idea is suppose to be that I’m recording that I had the same sensation I had the first day—S—and not T, U, or V. But what’s the criteria for “the same”? What makes it true that my sensation on day 27 really is “more like” the sensation S that I had on day 1, and not V, which I first had on day 16? How do I know that this new sensation is really an S and not a V? (Say S was an itch in my hand; will I be correct to use S to refer to an itch in my shoulder? Or a pain in my hand? Or for that matter a pain in my shoulder?) The only criterion is that it seems or feels that way to me. But in that case, I’m not really engaged in a rule-governed language system at all, because in effect S applies to whatever I decide it does. Since I can never really be wrong, it doesn’t really make sense to say I’m ever right in my use either. Since the terms are truly private, there’s no difference between “correctly applying S” and “specifying in greater detail what S means.” What looked like a “private language” was actually just a kind of pantomime of a true, rule-governed language.

I found myself thinking of Wittgenstein and his private language argument, oddly enough, when thinking about the various forms of “secret law” and “secret legal interpretations” that increasingly govern our endless War on Terror. Consider, for instance, the secret legal memorandum justifying the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, discussed in an October 8 New York Times piece:

The legal analysis, in essence, concluded that Mr. Awlaki could be legally killed, if it was not feasible to capture him, because intelligence agencies said he was taking part in the war between the United States and Al Qaeda and posed a significant threat to Americans, as well as because Yemeni authorities were unable or unwilling to stop him.

Whether or not one agrees with the substantive principle articulated here, this at least sounds like a real rule limiting the discretion of the executive. Except…who decides when a capture is “not feasible” (as opposed to merely risky, costly, or inconvenient)? The same executive who is meant to apply and be bound by the rule. Who determines when the threat posed by a citizen is “significant” enough to permit targeting? Again, the executive.

This is not, one might object, a wholly “private” interpretive problem, because the Office of Legal Counsel provides some kind of quasi-independent check: it will occasionally tell even a president that what he wants to do isn’t legal. But in that case, the president can simply do what Barack Obama did in the case of his intervention in Libya: keep asking different legal advisers until one of them gives you the answer you want, then decide that the more favorable opinion overrides whatever OLC had concluded.

Similar considerations apply to the “secret law” of surveillance. The FBI may issue National Security Letters for certain specific types of records—including “toll billing records”—without judicial approval, but these secret demands must at least be “relevant to an authorized investigation.” A weak limit, we might think, but at least a limit. Yet, again, the apparent limitation is illusory: it is the Justice Department itself that determines what may count as an “authorized investigation.” When Congress initially passed the Patriot Act a decade ago, an “authorized investigation” meant a “full investigation” predicated on some kind of real evidence of wrongdoing. Just a few years later, though, the attorney general’s guidelines were changed to permit their use in much more speculative “preliminary investigations,” and soon enough, the majority of NSLs were being used in such preliminary investigations. Needless to say, “relevance” too is very much in the eye of the beholder.

In most of these cases, the prospects for external limitation are slim. First, of course, anyone who disagreed with the executive’s secret interpretation would have to find out about it—which may happen only years after the fact in whatever unknowable percentage of cases it ever happens at all. Then they’d have to overcome the extraordinary deference of our court system to assertions of the State Secrets Privilege just to be able to have a court consider whether the government had acted illegally. In practice, then, the executive is defining the terms of, and interpreting, the same rules that supposedly bind it.

The usual thing to say about this scenario is that it shows the importance of checks and balances in preventing the law from being perverted or abused. If we think there is at least a rough analogy between these cases and Wittgenstein’s diarist writing in a “private language,” though, we’ll see that this doesn’t go quite far enough. What we should say, rather, is that these are cases where “secret law,” like “private language” is not merely practically dangerous but conceptually incoherent. They are not genuine cases of “legal interpretation” at all, but only a kind of pantomime. Perhaps what we should say in these cases is not that the president or the executive branch may have violated the law—as though there were still, in general, some background binding principles—but that in these institutional contexts one simply cannot speak of actions as “in accordance with” or “contrary to” the law at all.  Where the possibility of external correction is foreclosed, the objectionable and unobjectionable decisions alike are, inherently, lawless.

Of Qaddafi and Kim Kardashian

Last week on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, President Obama discussed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the 2012 Republican presidential field, and ubiquitous Hollywood socialite, Kim Kardashian. But the conversation got really interesting when it veered to the recent intervention in Libya.

Obama said that with the arrival of the Arab Spring, the late Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi had an opportunity “to finally loosen his grip on power and peacefully transition to democracy. We gave him ample opportunity and he wouldn’t do it.” On the former leader’s killing, Obama said, “There’s a reason after [Osama] bin Laden was killed, for example, we didn’t release the photograph. I think that there’s a certain decorum with which you treat the dead even if it’s somebody who’s done terrible things.”

Hmmm, decorum. To some in the Beltway it may seem tired and trite to hear that U.S. foreign policy is flagrantly hypocritical when it comes to the subject of human rights. But it’s nonetheless noteworthy to hear prominent American leaders openly advocate intervening abroad in places like Libya in advance of the universal human aspiration to be free while continuing to support Middle East client states that repress their own people. Sadly, President Obama and other American leaders, especially in the wake of the momentous Arab Spring, are often perceived as liberty’s worst emissaries.

For numerous strategic and historical reasons, no American government has intervened militarily in countries such as Algeria, Jordan, or Yemen in defense of human rights. In Saudi Arabia, a long-time U.S. partner, homosexuals, apostates, and drug smugglers can be sentenced to execution, sometimes by beheading. In extreme cases, the convict’s body is crucified in public. And yet, the same U.S. government that offers unflinching support to the Saudi Kingdom led from behind for an intervention in Libya to stop an alleged massacre in Benghazi. In neighboring Egypt, meanwhile, for 29 years the U.S. government showered former President Hosni Mubarak with praise, despite his widespread use of torture and systematic repression of political prisoners. Washington also continues to support and arm the regime in Bahrain, which deliberately kills unarmed protesters and oppresses its people.

To promote human rights in Libya while supporting some of the world’s most heinous tyrannies may reflect America’s geopolitical preferences, but it makes a mockery of human rights and reveals an enormous discrepancy between what America claims to be doing and what it actually does. As much as Obama and his defenders want to strut around and promote their triumph over Moammar Qaddafi, people in the Middle East and around the world are well aware of this discrepancy. Such policies are not only abhorrent but also detrimental to America’s long-term interests. Advancing liberty is a painful and arduous process, but it can be done, and often independent of U.S. government efforts.

Cross-Posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.