As an almost-absolute pacifist, it’s easy for me to say that the international community’s bombing of Libya is wrong. Use of violence against anyone in almost any situation is unjustified. But pacifism aside, I had a few thoughts about the usefulness of the airstrikes and the developing situation.
- How is Libya different from Bahrain? Both countries have autocratic rulers who are attacking their own civilians who are challenging their rule. True, the uprising in Bahrain is not a full-pitch civil war, but the justification for the use of force in Libya is not intervening in the civil war. Instead, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (PDF) only demands a “complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians.” The most obvious answer is that Bahrain is a key U.S. ally, along with Saudi Arabia, which is sending in troops to bolster Bahrain’s regime. The United States can still exert some pressure on Bahrain; it has no leverage with Libya. Still, this answer isn’t fully convincing.
- Why do we always go with airstrikes? Since Vietnam (with roots in World War Two’s strategic bombing campaign), we have been reliant on airstrikes to try to solve the problem of military intervention without sacrificing lives. Unfortunately, airstrikes tend to be inaccurate, while usually failing to achieve results. Meanwhile, their inaccuracy leads to civilian deaths, which this operation is supposedly designed to prevent. Furthermore, airstrikes, however damaging they may be, fail to achieve the kinds of psychological force that the Zeus Complex hopes to achieve. We imagine ourselves able to strike with lightning bolts out of the sky, destroy our enemies, and sit back with satisfaction. This has never been the case: interventions that begin with air support rarely end there.
- The question everyone’s been asking: What happens next? In my mind, there are myriad scenarios, but here are a few:
- Qaddafi falls: Backed by Western firepower, the rebels begin scoring victories. The military, now sensing a change in the winds, pushes Qaddafi out. Streaming throngs of Libyans take to the streets of Tripoli, and great exultation is had. This scenario is probably the best one imagined by Western powers, but it’s highly unlikely. Unlike Mubarak, Qaddafi has always prepared for mass unrest, and has tighter control over his military. Furthermore, even were this scenario to come true, what happens next is anyone’s guess. There’s no reason why the military wouldn’t seize control, and in any situation where the rebels have firepower and demands, there will be a long negotiation and possibly extended civil war. This leaves Western powers in a bind: who will we support then?
- Qaddafi wins: With Arab support drying up, Western powers only provide minimal air support for the rebels. Already heavily reduced in number, the rebels collapse at Benghazi, leaving Qaddafi in complete control. This is worst-case scenario for Western powers, since Qaddafi will then have full control of his country and a reasonable grudge against all Western powers. Qaddafi could put the squeeze on oil sales to drive up prices, or apply pressure to Egypt and Tunisia as they emerge into quasi-democracy. Meanwhile, NATO would have serious egg on its face. Again, this scenario doesn’t seem entirely likely, but it does leave the United States in the biggest bind.
- Long-term stalemate: This is the most likely scenario to me, and it contains all the problems of the first two — just drawn out over a longer period. Will Libya be partitioned? Will rebels demand a stake in ruling Libya? (Good luck with that.) Will there just be entrenched civil war? And if there is entrenched civil war, should we have intervened to essentially prolong it?
All of these scenarios are terrible, and it’s not clear that any of them are less terrible than simply allowing Qaddafi’s regime to win without intervention from NATO.
One of the unfortunate outcomes of the neo-conservative movement is the increasing lack of foreign policy non-interventionists. It’s either Clinton-style human rights interventions like Somalia or Kosovo, or Bush-style giant military interventions like Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m not saying that non-intervention is always the prudent choice. I am saying that the lack of non-interventionist voices makes the foreign policy debate one-sided. Where’s Henry Cabot Lodge when you need him?