Stephen M. Walt

What do we know so far about the Libya intervention?

Based on the weekend’s events, what do we now know about Libya? 1. As you can see from these Pentagon slides here, the United States did the the heavy lifting during the initial phases of the intervention against Libya (h/t Micah Zenko & Jeremy Pressman). Notice that these figures omit missile strikes, which were overwhelmingly ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Based on the weekend’s events, what do we now know about Libya?

1. As you can see from these Pentagon slides here, the United States did the the heavy lifting during the initial phases of the intervention against Libya (h/t Micah Zenko & Jeremy Pressman). Notice that these figures omit missile strikes, which were overwhelmingly conducted by the United States, so the data actually understate the extent to which the initial operations were dominated by Uncle Sam. We are now told that allied forces are going to take over (most of) the mission, but patrolling the no-fly-zone is pretty easy work now that Libya’s air defenses (which were never very good to begin with) have been largely if not entirely decimated. In short, this intervention fits the pattern of prior "coalitions of the willing": the United States does most of the work, and the other members are there mostly to provide diplomatic cover. That distribution of burdens is supposed to change now, but sticking to that plan will probably depend on whether the rebels keep making progress. If their campaign bogs down, Qaddafi’s forces are able to regroup, or the British and French start feeling the pinch, look for more pressure on Washington to get back in the game.

2. The operation in Libya has quickly moved beyond a purely humanitarian mission and the intervening forces are more-or-less openly seeking to topple Qaddafi’s regime. The New York Times reports that coalition air strikes against Qaddafi’s forces are continuing, and making it possible for the rebels to advance, even though the immediate humanitarian concern (i.e., the threat of some sort of massacre in Benghazi) has now been removed.

This latest version of "mission creep" isn’t surprising. Several Western leaders (including President Obama) have already called for Qaddafi to step down, the International Criminal Court says it is investigating possible crimes against humanity, and in any case his pariah status in the international community is well-earned. What is still not clear is the human price of this expanded mission. Ousting Qaddafi may still require a lot of bloody ground fighting, NATO airpower will be less valuable once it is a matter of urban warfare, the collapse of his regime could usher in a prolonged power vacuum, with lots of regrettable human consequences. It’s possible that tribal leaders can work out some sort of post-Qaddafi political formula, but a benign outcome of that sort is hardly guaranteed.

3. Whether this was the right decision or not won’t be known for awhile (remember that "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq?) The two situations are hardly identical, but the Iraqi case does remind us that there is a big difference between defeating a regime’s armed forces and driving its leaders from power, and being able to stand up a new government that can establish order. There’s still a real risk of prolonged internal disarray if we succeed, and the Libyan case is likely to teach other autocrats that giving up their WMD programs is a good way to leave themselves vulnerable to U.S.-led attack. Bottom line: the costs vs. benefits calculation here won’t be possible for some time.

As readers know, I’ve questioned the wisdom of this intervention, and I’ve thought that it should have been a European operation from the start. I’m still hoping that it resolves itself quickly, and that my concerns about the post-Qaddafi environment turn out to be unwarranted. I also hope that putting Libya back together afterwards turns out to be easier and less costly than I expect, and that success doesn’t embolden the neoconservative/liberal interventionist alliance and lead them off in search of new wrongs to right in places we don’t understand very well. In short, as is often the case, I hope I’m wrong about a lot of this. We’ll see.

 

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

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