Stephen M. Walt

What does the U.N.’s decision mean for Libya? For the rest of the world? (UPDATED)

The UN Security Council has authorized the use of force to prevent the loyalist forces backing Muammar al-Qaddafi from moving on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Given some of the statements Qaddafi has made in recent days — in effect threatening some sort of bloodbath against anyone who does not surrender to his troops — ...


The UN Security Council has authorized the use of force to prevent the loyalist forces backing Muammar al-Qaddafi from moving on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Given some of the statements Qaddafi has made in recent days — in effect threatening some sort of bloodbath against anyone who does not surrender to his troops — this reaction isn’t all that surprising. It is one thing to decide that an authoritarian crackdown is ultimately not worth the risk of war, but rather different to turn a blind eye when a dictator with a very checkered past starts threatening mass killings. Nonetheless, I have three comments to make about this latest turn of events.

First, as I wrote a few days ago, this really ought to be a European operation, because Europe has far more significant strategic interests at stake than we do. The United States could provide both diplomatic and logistical back-up, but this is an ideal opportunity for Europeans to learn that they should stop adopting lofty moral positions and then expect Uncle Sucker to do the heavy lifting. U.S. insistence that Arab forces participate in any future operation strikes me as exactly right; the last thing that either Europe or America wants is to be seen as replaying past colonial interventions in some new guise.

Second, the best hope here is that the onset of airstrikes quickly demoralizes the loyalist forces, tips the balance of resolve back toward the rebels, and maybe even convinces Qaddafi to blow town. This might happen, of course, but there are some reasons to be skeptical. Back in 1999, Madeleine Albright thought a few days of airstrikes would convince Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate in the Kosovo War, but the war actually dragged on weeks and he surrendered only after his Russian patrons withdrew their support and convinced him to cut a deal. The problem is that Qaddafi doesn’t have a lot of attractive options besides fighting on, which is precisely why he’s chosen to act as he has.

Furthermore, using airpower against Qaddafi’s army isn’t a simple matter, particularly if they taken some elementary precautions, like dispersing or camouflaging equipment. We can bomb airfields and ground air assets, and probably do a number on his command-and-control system, but it’s not clear how much that would affect his ability to conduct ground operations against the lightly armed and poorly trained rebel forces. The U.S. Air Force had a lot of trouble finding and destroying Serb military targets during the Kosovo war, and most of the damage it did came from attacks on fixed targets like bridges and power grids.

Let’s also remember that we are going to miss some targets and inflict some collateral damage too (remember that Chinese embassy in Belgrade?). As far as I know, we don’t have spotters on the ground to do laser target designation, and sending special forces to perform that task has obvious risks of its own. If Qaddafi’s forces move into populated areas than even precision guided weapons could kill a lot of innocent bystanders. In fact, going after his ground forces is likely to require attack helicopters and other short-range aircraft (not strategic bombers), and that means using carrier aviation. Which in turn means Uncle Sam. My point is that this situation doesn’t seem well-suited to the kind of devastating air assault that we conducted with heavy bombers against the Iraqi army at the start of Desert Storm, or even the adroit and successful air and special forces campaign that ousted the Taliban in 2001-2002.

Third, this whole debate on Libya underscores the importance of something that enthusiastic war hawks always forget: opportunity costs. Just imagine how different this discussion might be if the United States hadn’t already fought a long, costly, and unsuccessful war in Iraq, and if we weren’t now bogged down in another quagmire in Afghanistan. For that matter, it would look different if Barack Obama had wisely chosen to get out of Afghanistan back in 2009, so that the U.S. military could start rebuilding itself after a decade or war. If we do go into Libya, and it ends up being harder than we think, and then something serious happens somewhere else (North Korea, the South China Sea, Sudan, the Horn of Africa, Mexico, etc.), what do we do then?

It is obviously excruciating to watch a tyrant like Qaddafi defy a popular uprising, and kill his own countrymen solely for the purpose of defending his egomaniacal rule. Let us therefore hope that this politico-military equivalent of a Hail Mary pass will work. Let us also give some credit to Obama’s diplomacy: instead of making this yet another impulsive American crusade, he has insisted that the United States be part of a genuine, diverse international coalition. He’s not dragging the country to war; he’s waited until others have been positively begging us to do something. If it succeeds, we can all be pleased. If it goes badly, or proves more difficult than we think, at least the United States won’t be bearing all of the responsibility or all of the costs. That’s something. But we will be bearing some of the burden, and it’s by no means obvious that it will be worth it.

UPDATE:  In an encouraging sign, the Qaddafi regime has reacted to the UN resolution by declaring an immediate cease-fire, which suggests that prospect of outside intervention has induced some second thoughts about his campaign to crush the rebellion by force.  The offer has been rejected by the Western powers, who are reportedly demaind concrete steps (such as a withdrawal off his forces from Benghazi) and not just words.  This diplomatic dance shows just how uncertain and open-ended this whole business could be: Qaddafi may be unable to retake the whole country now, but the rebels may not be able to force him out either in the absence of direct outside involvement (possibly including troops on the ground).  And if that happens, we could be back in the business of occupying a Muslim country that is internally divided and has been severely damaged by decades of misrule and economic sanctions. For a good analysis, see FP’s Marc Lynch here.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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