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Questions About Libya

Several of my TNR colleagues believe the Obama Administration was right to establish a no-fly zone in Libya. My guess is that they are correct. For the moment, at least, it appears that the military action is limited and that it has prevented an imminent massacre, by a dictator who has killed hundreds of civilians and maybe more, just in the last few weeks. That would make this a textbook case of humanitarian intervention, or as close to a textbook case as you're going to find nowadays. I also take some comfort in the fact that the intervention has taken place with approval from the United Nations and with support from Arab nations, however tentative and fleeting that support turns out to be. 

But I am not at all confident that my judgment is correct. And that is not simply because my grasp of foreign policy is so loose. A number of writers and thinkers whom I respect have raised valid, practical concerns about what we are trying to accomplish, whether we can accomplish it, and what we are prepared to do if we cannot. These “what happens then” questions, as the Atlantic’s James Fallows has called them, deserve answers. And, unless I've missed something, those answers haven't come yet.

Among the most important concerns these people have raised, in no particular order:

Is regime change the ultimate goal? And if limited military action does not bring that about, are we content to let Qaddafi remain in power? It’s possible to have separate goals for foreign policy and military policy. And the United Nations resolution, although broad by UN standards, does not authorize Qaddafi’s ouster. But the Obama Administration and its allies have sent conflicting signals about their intentions. That may be a product of hasty organization and miscommunication. Or it may be a product of genuine confusion, and disagreement, over the ultimate goal of this intervention. 

Is a no-fly zone sufficient to prevent massacres? If not, what then? The capabilities and limits of air power are not subjects I know particularly well. But no-fly zones are obviously more effective against airplanes and armor than soldiers operating in smaller groups, on foot or on civilian vehicles. That means the killing may continue, even while U.S. and allied aircraft circle overhead. Recent analysis from Stratfor suggests it is happening already: “civilians are being killed even now across the country – and not just with loyalist aircraft, armor or artillery but also with small arms by dismounted infantry and security forces loyal to the regime.” 

How much do we trust the rebels? Trust has two meanings here: Trust that the rebels have the ability to carry out the fight and trust that they would, in power, be a more humane and democratic alternative. The outburst of popular rebellion in the Islamic world has been something to behold--and to cherish. But Joe Klein, in Time, and David Kirkpatrick, in the New York Times, have each raised questions about whether the Libyan uprising is really of a piece with what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. Here's Kirkpatrick:

The question has hovered over the Libyan uprising from the moment the first tank commander defected to join his cousins protesting in the streets of Benghazi: Is the battle for Libya the clash of a brutal dictator against a democratic opposition, or is it fundamentally a tribal civil war? …
“It is a very important question that is terribly near impossible to answer,” said Paul Sullivan, a political scientist at Georgetown University who has studied Libya. “It could be a very big surprise when Qaddafi leaves and we find out who we are really dealing with.”

Are we distracting ourselves from more urgent priorities? The Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg calls Libya a “seventh-order” foreign policy issue. Then he makes an observation about government that’s as true of domestic policy as it is of foreign policy, and too infrequently appreciated by outsiders

One of the things you notice in Washington is that even our government's most talented servants, like most of their fellow humans, have little ability to focus on more than one or two pressing issues at any given moment. Yes, they can speak on eight or ten issues at once, but granting sustained, deep attention to a hard problem is different than juggling questions at a press conference.

To be honest, I'm not sure how the answers to these questions would affect my feelings about military action, now or in the future. But I know we should have the answers--and that they should come from somebody more qualified to give them than me.