Tag: qaddafi

Another Suspect in the Libya Attack

Almost before the embers had cooled in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that took the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other staffers, suspicion centered on Ansar al Sharia and the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, two North African radical Islamist factions loosely affiliated with al Qaeda. One of those groups is most likely the perpetrator, but we need to at least consider other possibilities.

A few facts are clear: The assault was not a spontaneous demonstration in response to the notorious video mocking the Prophet Mohammad—a demonstration that simply spiraled out of control. Even the nasty, but less violent, demonstrations in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, and other Muslim countries do not fully fit that description, and the Libya attack was fundamentally different from all of those other incidents. The assault in Benghazi had all the earmarks of a well-planned, well-coordinated, professional military operation.

It is possible that either Ansar al Sharia or the Abdul Rahman Brigades had the capability to carry out such a sophisticated attack, but another faction was even more capable: former security personnel from Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. And that group had a strong motive for assassinating Ambassador Stevens: He had been the U.S. envoy to rebel groups in Libya, helping to coordinate U.S. and NATO aid to the insurgents who eventually overthrew Qaddafi. “As the conflict in Libya unfolded, Chris was one of the first Americans on the ground in Benghazi,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed on Wednesday. Indeed, one report asserted that he had “wrangled a ride on a Greek cargo ship” early in the conflict to get into Benghazi, the initial rebel stronghold.

Pro-Qaddafi elements were undoubtedly aware of his none-too-subtle role in the revolution. The attack on the consulate could have been payback. Indeed, Libya’s ambassador to the United States, Ali Aujali, insisted that his government had intelligence that “Qaddafi’s associates” were involved in the attack. It is tempting to summarily dismiss that thesis, since the new Libyan government is prone to blame every unpleasant development on remnants of Qaddafi’s regime, much as Iraqi and U.S. officials had the lazy habit of blaming all attacks during the first few years of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq on “Saddam dead-enders.”

But it’s possible that the Libyan ambassador could be right in this case. As I’ve written elsewhere, Libya is a deeply divided tribal society, with the main political fissure running north-south roughly through the middle of the country. Eastern tribes dominated the revolution (and previous unsuccessful rebellions against Qaddafi), while western tribes were the bulk of his supporters. Qaddafi’s death did not erase those divisions, and opponents of the new regime had ample reason to hate Stevens as an architect of their new, inferior status.

Although Islamic extremists were the most likely perpetrators of the attack and assassination, we should not be blind to other possibilities. Libya is a turbulent snake pit into which the United States has wandered. There are a lot of nasty actors—and more than one suspect in the consulate murders.

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.

U.S. Must Resist Military Role in Post-Qaddafi Libya

After weeks of very little movement either militarily or diplomatically in Libya, there are apparent developments on both fronts in recent days. Rebel forces, aided by NATO’s air support, finally appear to be advancing into western Libya and cutting off supply lines to Tripoli, the long-time stronghold of support for Muammar Qaddafi. And reports are swirling about secret negotiations that might provide a peaceful exit from the country for the aging dictator.

Those developments underscore that U.S. and NATO officials urgently need to consider what strategy they intend to pursue if Qaddafi’s more than four-decade hold on power finally comes to an end.  That is more crucial for the leaders of the European members of the alliance, since Libya is located on Europe’s Mediterranean flank, but because the Obama administration unwisely chose to involve the United States in Libya’s internecine conflict by launching air strikes, it has become a pertinent issue for Washington as well.

The outlook for a post-Qaddafi Libya is midpoint between sobering and depressing.  It is possible that the warring parties will accept a de facto division of the country between the eastern and western tribes, although a formal agreement to that effect is unlikely. Even an informal partition would more accurately reflect the demographics, politics, and history of that territory than an insistence on keeping Libya intact. Moreover, the most probable alternatives to a peaceful territorial division would be a continuous, simmering civil war or a rebel victory that would merely breed resentment in the western part of the country and pave the way for a new round of fighting a few years from now.

The NATO powers must confront the question of how much they are willing to assist the insurgents in maintaining control of western Libya once Qaddafi is gone. Prospects are not good that a government formed by the eastern-dominated rebel forces would be able to win even a modest number of influential converts from the western tribes. And if the problem of achieving and maintaining political control was not enough of a challenge for the insurgents and their NATO sponsors, there is the matter of repairing the infrastructure damaged in the fighting and replenishing the now largely empty Libyan treasury.

A new government in Tripoli cannot count on oil revenues in the short or medium term to remedy those problems. Experts estimate that it will be at least three years before oil production can return to pre-war levels.

Libya’s probable security and economic difficulties will create tremendous pressure on NATO to provide extensive financial aid and deploy peacekeeping forces. Therein lies the danger to the United States. Logically, if NATO does deploy ground forces, they should come overwhelmingly from France and some of the other countries bordering the Mediterranean. Those nations have the most at stake in trying to stabilize Libya. NATO members in central and northern Europe (with the exception of Britain) have shown little desire to engage in such a mission. So far, the Obama administration has indicated that the United States will not put ground forces into Libya —a wise exercise in restraint.

But given the financial woes of Italy, France and other key European members of the alliance, and given the habitual desire of the Europeans to off-load security problems onto the United States as NATO’s leader, it is all too likely that we will see a concerted campaign to get Washington’s participation in a post-Qaddafi peacekeeping mission. The Obama administration should firmly reject such overtures.  Washington’s agenda is already more than full with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the NATO nation-building missions in Bosnia and Kosovo provide ample evidence that a similar venture in Libya could prove extremely lengthy, expensive, and frustrating. President Obama should resist any temptation to involve the United States further in Libya’s domestic quarrels.

Cross-posted from the National Interest.

René Magritte’s War

The Belgian painter René Magritte is famous in part for the painting pictured below.

What’s surprising is how much Magritte can tell us about our war in Libya. To recap where we are in Libya, our military objective is to “protect civilians” in that country. Except there’s this paragraph opening the recent New York Times article on the war:

WASHINGTON — NATO planners say the allies are stepping up attacks on palaces, headquarters, communications centers and other prominent institutions supporting the Libyan government, a shift of targets that is intended to weaken Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s grip on power and frustrate his forces in the field.

The Times also runs these quotes from officials in charge of the war:

“Now we are going after his rear echelon,” one NATO official said. “We are going after his ability to command and control his forces — his headquarters, his command posts, his communications — all those things that allow him to coordinate his attacks at the front.”

Military officials privately acknowledge that removing Colonel Qaddafi from power is the desired secondary effect of striking at state television and other symbols of his authoritarian rule. “His people may see the futility of continued resistance,” one Pentagon official said.

Somebody should probably loop in poor White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who made the mistake just yesterday of saying the following:

“The goal of the mission is clear: protect the civilian population, enforce the no-fly zone, enforce the arms embargo. [It is] certainly not the policy of the coalition, of this administration, to decapitate, if you will, or to effect regime change in Libya by force.”

So let’s work this out. The United States currently has as a policy objective in Libya to remove Muammar Qaddafi from power. Washington is simultaneously using the military to attack “institutions supporting the Libyan government” in order to “weaken Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s grip on power,” but our official position is that doing so is unrelated to our policy objective of getting Qaddafi out of power. Does the administration really think we’re that stupid? Perhaps more importantly, is Congress that stupid?

Also, it may be time for a rundown of terms for which we no longer have adequate working definitions. I nominate:

  • “war”
  • “kinetic military action”
  • “protect”
  • “civilians”
  • “protect civilians”
  • “massacre”
  • “regime change”
  • “target”

Any other nominees?

The Senate’s Interventionist Caucus and Libya

An interesting window into the politics of the Obama administration’s war in Libya may open this week, when Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) reintroduce a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate “that it is not in the vital interests of the United States to intervene militarily in Libya,” and calling on NATO member states and the Arab League, two parties who are directly threatened by the violence in Libya, to provide the necessary assets to the mission.

Such resolutions almost never have a direct impact on the conduct of military operations. Hutchison-Manchin isn’t even the first attempt to constrain President Obama’s ability to wage war in Libya. A resolution offered by freshman Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and cosponsored by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), went well beyond the question of whether the war advanced vital U.S. national interests, and attempted to reassert the legislature’s control over the warpowers generally. Borrowing from something that then-Senator Barack Obama said in 2007, the resolution read “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” This language, which likely strikes most Americans as eminently sensible, managed to garner just 10 votes, all from Republicans.

Still, the prospect of a vote on a much narrower resolution must worry the war’s advocates. At a minimum, an up or down vote on Libya will test the strength of the still-vocal interventionist caucus in the U.S. Senate.

These reliably pro-war members took to the Sunday shows to make the case for escalation. On CNN’s State of the Union, Sen. Lindsey Graham called on the Obama administration “to cut the head of the snake off. Go to Tripoli [and] start bombing Qaddafi’s inner circle.” Worries that the uprising might provide cover for al Qaeda to expand its operations in the Maghreb were unfounded, John McCain asserted. McCain’s long-time friend Sen. Joseph Lieberman agreed, explaining on the same program, “We’re in the fight and the political goal is to get Qaddafi out and to help the freedom fighters achieve their own independent Libya. You can’t get into a fight with one foot. You got to get into it.”

How many others in the Senate subscribe to the interventionists’ interpretation of what America’s role in Libya should be is unclear. I have never understood why Republicans would scramble to follow foreign policy advice from a Democrat, and Al Gore’s running mate, no less. Senators McCain and Graham hold more sway among their GOP colleagues, but their outspoken support for a number of other ill-considered ventures, including especially the war in Iraq, likely gives pause to some. Graham’s fellow South Carolinian Jim DeMint, for example, voted in favor of the Paul-Lee resolution, and has otherwise shown no great enthusiasm for adding to the U.S. military’s already full plate. The Boston Globe’s Theo Emery reports today that Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown isn’t yet ready to endorse an escalation of the war. Meanwhile, Maine’s Susan Collins told Emery that the U.S. military’s role in Libya should be limited to intelligence, logistics, and other capabilities that U.S. allies lack.

Who else might vote for Hutchison-Manchin? Presumably those within the Democratic caucus who still think that war is generally a bad thing, even when it is waged by a Democratic president. No Democrat voted for Paul-Lee, but Senator Manchin’s co-sponsorship of this much more narrowly worded resolution should provide cover for centrists, as well as progressives who once reliably opposed wars of choice.

One thing is clear with respect to the war in Libya: politics favors the skeptics. There is no groundswell of public opinion calling for yet another armed nation-building mission in a strategic backwater. Though the costs of the war are small relative to the gargantuan military budget, most Americans can be counted on to oppose wars that do not clearly advance U.S. national security interests, regardless of how much or how little they cost. They are doubly skeptical given that the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have vastly exceeded even the most pessimistic of predictions, and have not delivered the security that the advocates for war claimed.

It is a truism that politics doesn’t generally drive foreign policy. People who celebrate America’s role as the world’s policeman don’t expect to reap great political rewards for taking such an unpopular stand. McCain, Graham and Lieberman have always stood apart in that regard. Recall, for example, that John McCain bragged that he would rather lose an election than lose a war. He never appeared to consider that both eventualities were possible. Perhaps some of his fellow senators will.

Cross-posted from The National Interest

The Legitimacy of the Libyan War

President Obama’s speech last evening offers a chance to assess the implications of the war in Libya.

President Obama is not the first president to order attacks on another nation without the authorization of Congress.  This case, however, seems different. Prior to the intervention, the President’s national security advisors had determined that the nation had no vital interest at stake in the Libyan civil war. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has repeated that conclusion after the intervention began. For his part, President Obama emphasized in last night’s speech and before, that the war would preclude a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Why did that rationale win out over the realism of his advisors?

President Obama tends to see our nation and the world as divided between oppressors (victimizers) and the oppressed (victims).  In this view, politics should help the oppressed and do justice (i.e. harm) to the oppressor.  In Libya, this outlook provides a clear division between a oppressor (Qaddafi and his loyalists) and his victims (the rebels). Morality thus demands war against the oppressor on behalf of his victims.

But there is a problem with America acting alone. Many people in the Middle East and elsewhere see the United States not as a vindicator of the oppressed but rather as a oppressor.  Truth be told, more than few Americans share that view.

Those who share this view believe that the United States cannot act unilaterally to help the victims in Libya. This would be true even if Congress authorizes the war as required under Article I of the United States Constitution.  The authorization to go to war must come from someone else other than an American political official or institution.

Hence, President Obama sought international authorization for the war in Libya. True, he sought that authority for pragmatic reasons. A coalition meant shared burdens and (Obama believes) a quick way out of Libya. But the authorizations by the U.N. Security Council and earlier by the Arab League also could be seen as giving legitimacy to the enterprise. Those authorizations meant the United States could go to Libya as a true protector of the oppressed.

If you doubt any of this, examine closely what the President has said about the war. In his speech, the rebels become victims at the mercy of an oppressor. Congress gets a fleeting mention related to consultation about, rather than authorization of, war. True legitimacy for the war comes from a “U.N. mandate and international support.” In his letter to Congress announcing the war, the first sentence reads “at my direction, U.S. military forces commenced operations to assist an international effort authorized by the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council and undertaken with the support of European allies and Arab partners, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe…” Here again the legitimacy for the war comes the United Nations, the European allies, and the Arab League. Congress has neither power to deny the president nor legitimacy to bestow on his work.

There is much to say about these reasons for war. Some people might see in Libya a civil war between two armed gangs. Lacking the frame of oppressor and victims, they will be less willing than the President to assume that the people in the territory called Libya wear either black or white hats. We may learn to our cost that our new allies are victims now and oppressors later.  If we take the President seriously, we will be obligated to make war against them, too.

We have now taken on a default obligation to help every victim and to punish every oppressor throughout the world. We have two constraints on fulfilling that obligation. The first, mentioned by the president, is costs. Eventually the financial markets may limit our efforts on behalf of victims. Second, and more important legally, a president must seek authorization for war from the United Nations, the European union, the Arab League or….well, anyone except the United States Congress.

It is not just that this president, like others before him, ignored Article I of the Constitution. Nor is this president the first to shun moral complexity in favor of a Manichean outlook. President Obama is the first, however, to assert that his broad powers to initiate war should be limited primarily by people who are outside the American social compact.  On this account, sotto voce, the Constitution is not just ignored. It is irrelevant.