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Hussein Ibish

Avoiding a fiasco

US President Barack Obama is being attacked from every possible direction over his policy of limited military engagement in Libya.

Because Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Tripoli has not yet been overthrown and Libya appears to be stuck in a stalemated civil war, the cry of “fiasco” is unfairly ringing across the political spectrum.

Opponents of the no-fly zone say the policy has failed because it was a muted instance of imperial hubris: the US butting in where it isn't needed or wanted. Many who supported it now say Qaddafi's survival demonstrates that the policy was under, rather than over, ambitious.

Some want all action to stop. Others are nudging the West toward an ill-advised ground invasion.

These critics almost always ignore Obama's stated goals for the intervention in Libya. He laid out a set of criteria for military engagement when American security isn't directly threatened: a confluence of “values” with “interests.” Addressing a skeptical public, Obama stressed “values”: The prevention of a probable massacre in Benghazi and saving lives by attacking government heavy weaponry.

But he was also clear that the US had an “interest” in preventing Qaddafi from achieving a clear-cut victory by overrunning Benghazi and consolidating his power.

Critics of Obama's limited engagement policy either suggest it was intended to lead to the rapid overthrow of Qaddafi, or that the US doesn't know what it's doing and essentially has no coherent policy.

Both are wrong.

Obama and his advisers are undoubtedly aware that air power alone has never resolved any conflict, and it is unlikely that they had any abiding faith in the ability of rebels to transform the air intervention into a rapid victory. Obama never spoke in those terms, and there's no indication he was thinking in them either. The limited aim of the no-fly zone is not to produce, in short order or definitively, Qaddafi's defeat and ouster, since air power obviously cannot do that. Its narrow goal is rather to prevent a Qaddafi victory.

As for saving lives, what might have happened in Benghazi without the no-fly zone intervention is speculation, but there's every reason to think that many more people would have been killed in Libya without it, based on Qaddafi's own words and deeds. Denying him a significant percentage of his heavy weaponry and eroding it further on a daily basis has undoubtedly blunted his ability to kill people, as he frankly boasted, “house by house.”

The no-fly zone hasn't saved every life, and Obama never said it would.

But it's hard to argue it hasn't saved many. It might be possible to claim that by preventing a decisive Qaddafi victory a few weeks ago, the no-fly zone helped produce a stalemated civil war that could drag on, thereby leading to many otherwise avoidable deaths. That's plausible, but anyone saying so would have to acknowledge up front that they are advocating allowing Qaddafi to fully retake control of his country, have his way with his rebellious cities and provinces, and reemerge as a menace to the region and possibly the world.

Those who argue for a ground intervention are basically advocating that Obama turn Libya into his own Iraq. They should remember Colin Powell's “Pottery Barn rule," which invasion, but not a no-fly zone, engages: "If you break it, you own it." Among other things, it would deprive Libyans of the ability to shape their own future independently and require the West to play a much larger role in developing it than anyone should be comfortable with. Every indication suggests large majorities of both Libyans and Americans do not want any such engagement. It is unnecessary and would be extremely unwise.

That said, supporters of Obama's limited engagement policy in Libya must acknowledge that it might mean living with, or even enabling, a protracted civil war, a stalemate and possibly a temporary but prolonged de facto division of Libya.

At first glance, that seems a hard position to defend. But it can only be contrasted with the alternatives of having done nothing or an all-out invasion. For all its flaws, the limited policy avoids the likely disasters, or at least major problems, emerging from both of those approaches.

More should be done, and there are ongoing efforts to arm, train and otherwise assist the rebels, including $25 million in US “nonlethal aid” (in wartime, an illusory concept). Such steps are consistent with the logic of Obama's limited engagement.

The policy avoids two obviously unacceptable scenarios – Qaddafi victory or Western invasion – in favor of one that isn't pretty but is preferable to the really-existing alternatives.

That's not a hallmark of a failed or incoherent policy, but a realistic and mature one. Any approach that prudently avoids disasters, and embraces the bad in preference to the worse, when no better options are evident, deserves support.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.