Daniel W. Drezner

Why Libya is not a template for future military statecraft

Why Libya is not a template for future military statecraft

Fareed Zakaria thinks that the Libya intervention signals "a new era in U.S. foreign policy": 

The United States decided that it was only going to intervene in Libya if it could establish several conditions:

1)    A local group that was willing to fight and die for change; in other words, "indigenous capacity".

2)    Locally recognized legitimacy in the form of the Arab League’s request for intervention.

3)    International legitimacy in the form of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.

4)    Genuine burden sharing with the British and French spelling out precisely how many sorties they would be willing to man and precisely what level of commitment they would be willing to provide.…

The new model does two things:

First, it ensures that there’s genuinely a local alliance committed to the same goals as the external coalition.  This way, there is more legitimacy on the ground. And if there is anything Afghanistan and Iraq have taught us, it is that local legitimacy is key.

Second, this model ensures that there is genuine burden sharing so that the United States is not left owning the country as has happened so often in the past.…

In the future, we will again have to follow this limited model of intervention.

This sounds great, except that the set of criteria that Zakaria lists is so stringent that I seriously doubt that they will be satisfied again in my lifetime. Russia and China regretted the U.N. support the minute after it passed, and the president of the Arab League had buyer’s remorse almost immediately after NATO started bombing. Even if the Libya operation looks like a success from here on out, there’s no way that list of criteria will be satisfied. Ever. 

Now, for those readers worried about the creeping militarization of American foreign policy, this might sound like a great idea, as it creates a ridiculously high barrier for military intervention. And, indeed, so long as these criteria are only used to satisfy humanitarian military interventions, it sounds good. Except that most military interventions aren’t strictly humanitarian. The moment core national interests kick in, these criteria get downgraded from prerequisites to luxuries. 

So Zakaria is wildly inflating the importance of the sui generis nature of the Libya intervention. But that’s OK; he’s a pundit, not an actual policymaker. There’s no way anyone working in the White House, say, would make such a simplistic, facile — hey, what’s in this Josh Rogin FP interview with Ben Rhodes

This week’s toppling of the Qaddafi regime in Libya shows that the Obama administration’s multilateral and light-footprint approach to regime change is more effective than the troop-heavy occupation-style approach used by the George W. Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, a top White House official told Foreign Policy today in a wide-ranging interview.

"The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis of legitimacy for this but also will provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for communications, in an exclusive interview on Wednesday with FP. "While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition."…

"There are two principles that the president stressed at the outset [of the Libya intervention] that have borne out in our approach. The first is that we believe that it’s far more legitimate and effective for regime change to be pursued by an indigenous political movement than by the United States or foreign powers," said Rhodes. "Secondly, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the U.S. wasn’t bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions."

Rhodes said that the United States is not going to be able to replicate the exact same approach to intervention in other countries, but identified the two core principles of relying on indigenous forces and burden sharing as "characteristics of how the president approaches foreign policy and military intervention."

Excuse me for a second; I have to go do this

Look, ceteris paribus, burden-sharing and local support are obviously nifty things to have. I guarantee you, however, that the time will come when an urgent foreign-policy priority will require some kind of military statecraft, and these criteria will not be met. The Obama administration should know this, since its greatest success in military statecraft to date did not satisfy either of these criteria

There is always a danger, after a perceived policy success, to declare it as a template for all future policies in that arena. Pundits make this mistake all the time. Policymakers should know better.