Argument

Libya Is a Problem from Hell

Why isn't Obama listening to Samantha Power's advice when it comes to intervention in Libya?

As Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces advance toward Benghazi, Barack Obama's administration continues to dither in its response to Libya's crisis. Although the U.S. president insists that all options are on the table, his administration has failed to outline a plan that could conceivably help the Libyan rebels oust Qaddafi and end the bloodshed. The weak American response pales in comparison with countries such as France -- which has recognized Libya's revolutionary council as the country's legitimate government and has contemplated airstrikes -- and even the Arab League, which endorsed a no-fly zone over the weekend.

Meanwhile, some in the foreign-policy establishment have marshaled a number of arguments for U.S. inaction. Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass argued in the Wall Street Journal, for example, that U.S. interests in Libya were "less than vital" and made the case that a no-fly zone would be ineffective at halting Qaddafi's forces. Writing in the Washington Post, retired Gen. Wesley Clark stated that "violence in Libya is not significant in comparison" with recent civil wars in Africa and fighting in Darfur, and that there is "no clear basis for action." And early in the conflict, when reports of regime violence against civilians were at their peak, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen claimed, "We've ... not been able to confirm that any of the Libyan aircraft have fired on their own people."

These arguments are not new. They have been brought forth time and again when the United States and the international community debated whether to intervene in order to halt state-sponsored attacks on civilians. What's more, one of the most eloquent rebuttals to these recurring claims for nonintervention was penned by none other than an official currently serving in the Obama administration. Senior National Security Council official Samantha Power, in her 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell, identified several reasons behind the United States' repeated failure to prevent genocide.

The first reason for U.S. inaction to prevent the mass killing of civilians is supposed lack of knowledge. In many cases, Power notes:

The most common response is, "We didn't know." This is not true. To be sure, the information emanating from countries victimized by genocide was imperfect. Embassy personnel were withdrawn, intelligence assets on the ground were scarce, editors were typically reluctant to assign their reporters to places where neither U.S. interests nor American readers were engaged, and journalists who attempted to report the atrocities were limited in their mobility. As a result, refugee claims were difficult to confirm and body counts notoriously hard to establish. Because genocide is usually veiled under the cover of war, some U.S. officials at first had genuine difficulty distinguishing deliberate atrocities against civilians from conventional conflict.

Despite these difficulties, it is clear that the violence being deployed by the Libyan regime is indiscriminate and not solely directed at the poorly armed rebels. Qaddafi expressed his intention early in the conflict to "cleanse Libya house by house," and as government forces attempt to retake towns controlled by the rebels, reports of shelling of civilian areas and firing on civilian and humanitarian vehicles have increased. Refugees fleeing the initial outbreak of violence described a brutal scene of bodies hanging from electricity poles and militia trucks loaded with the dead.

As Power wrote about previous U.S. responses to genocide, "U.S. officials who 'did not know' or 'did not fully appreciate' chose not to." It might be convenient to avert our eyes or write off such reports as exaggerated opposition claims, but there are enough examples of such accounts that the human toll in Libya is undeniable.

Skeptics of intervention also argue that the United States cannot have much of an impact without a sizable U.S. military commitment -- a commitment that is then dismissed as imprudent.

U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder raised this point last week, saying, "Even if [a no-fly zone] were to be established, [it] isn't really going to impact what is happening there today." Haass also made this case in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, claiming that if a no-fly zone is not enough, the United States would then need military personnel on the ground, which would be a drastic and unwise escalation of U.S. involvement. Similarly, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told lawmakers that the implementation of a no-fly zone "begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses," essentially an act of war.

It is not clear that the Pentagon's qualms about a no-fly zone are drawn from a serious assessment of the resource requirements or just a general lack of interest in intervening in Libya. The fact that European allies such as Britain and France, whose militaries lack the size and advanced capabilities of the U.S. armed forces, have seemed much more willing to intervene seems to indicate that it is the Pentagon's traditional noninterventionist tendencies --- rather than resources -- that lie behind its reluctance to get involved.

Gates's unwillingness to lead on this point is a troubling sign about a possible re-emergence in the Pentagon of the so-called Powell doctrine, which held that any involvement required overwhelming force, needed broad international support, and a clear exit strategy.

When Colin Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed this approach in an effort to forestall intervention in Bosnia by Bill Clinton's administration, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously asked Powell, "What are you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can't use it?" Similarly, reluctance at the Pentagon was one of the primary reasons that George W. Bush's administration did not intervene militarily in response to the genocide in Darfur. The Obama White House appears to be the latest victim of this time-tested Pentagon tactic.

This goes to Power's most important lesson from her survey of the U.S. response to genocide: It all comes down to will. "The real reason the United States did not do what it could and should have done to stop genocide was not a lack of knowledge or influence but a lack of will," she wrote. "Simply put, American leaders did not act because they did not want to. They believed that genocide was wrong, but they were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital needed to stop it."

If American policymakers want to make a difference, they can. But hope for a quick and bloodless resolution to the Libya conflict is no substitute for a realistic appraisal of the stakes of this crisis. As Qaddafi's forces regain the initiative, the humanitarian costs of inaction grow.

Power is not the only Obama administration official to make the case for U.S. humanitarian intervention. The late Richard Holbrooke, writing in To End a War, his account of the peace talks that ended the Bosnian conflict, presciently warned:

There will be other Bosnias in our lives -- areas where early outside involvement can be decisive, and American leadership will be required. The world's richest nation, one that presumes to great moral authority, cannot simply make worthy appeals to conscience and call on others to carry the burden. The world will look to Washington for more than rhetoric the next time we face a challenge to peace.

However, the Libyan people and the world are getting exactly what Holbrooke feared -- rhetoric about the need for Qaddafi to leave and mixed signals about U.S. resolve in guaranteeing that this happens.

Beyond the moral cost to U.S. foreign policy, a victory by Qaddafi will send a stark message to other autocrats in the Middle East and around the world. The people of Tunisia and Egypt freed themselves from repressive rulers with minimal violence and loss of life. If Qaddafi manages to cling to power through widespread violence and military force, this so-called "Arab Spring" may become very bloody indeed.

It is not too late. Obama should listen to those inside his administration and in the international community who believe that the United States should act to prevent further bloodshed. If he does not, Libya will become the latest in a long list of cases in which the United States, once again, ends up on the wrong side of history.

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Don't Blame the Spies

The U.S. government needs to start getting comfortable hearing uncomfortable intelligence analysis. And the public needs to realize that the CIA is not the Department of Avoiding Surprises.

Last week's hue and cry over comments by James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, only highlights the absurd expectations heaped on the intelligence community during the recent Arab uprisings. For those who missed it, a quick summary: Asked to comment before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clapper noted that Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi is determinedly "hunkering down for the duration" and assessed that "the regime will prevail" over the long term because of its superior military resources.

Clapper's remarks, to put it lightly, were not a welcome contribution at a time when Washington is hoping for Qaddafi's departure. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) led the resulting criticism with a statement that called on the president to remove the intelligence director. Clapper's assessment of the Libyan regime's staying power, declared Graham, "undercuts our national efforts to bring about the desired result of Libya moving from dictator to democracy." Graham conceded that "some of his [Clapper's] analysis could prove to be accurate," but said that it should not have been uttered publicly.

This fracas exemplifies the no-win situation that top U.S. intelligence officials often find themselves in when addressing politically explosive topics. The country's intelligence chief is knocked for responding to a senator's question with a frank assessment. But time and again, after some crisis or costly failure, the intelligence community has been criticized for allegedly not providing that kind of unwelcome or uncomfortable message -- and for not providing it loudly enough to gain the attention of even the most inattentive. Prior to the Iraq war, for example, the intelligence community offered assessments that foretold the sectarian strife and most of the other violent consequences of overthrowing Saddam Hussein's regime, but few people noticed, even after the assessments were made public years later.

Intelligence officials quickly find that their assessments must be presented loudly and forcefully to have any hope their message will register. That does not mean only providing their work in classified papers, of the sort the intelligence agencies routinely give policymakers. It does not mean making a statement in a closed briefing on Capitol Hill, where Graham -- an Armed Services Committee member who did not even attend the public hearing last week -- probably would never have heard it. It means trumpeting their message brashly and publicly, even at the expense of complicating the work of executive-branch policymakers for whom intelligence officers work.

The inconsistencies in public and political expectations constrain what the intelligence agencies can say not only about Libya, but all aspects of the political upheaval in the Middle East. The intelligence community has been criticized already for failing to predict this wave of revolutions. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the community's performance was "lacking." But imagine what would have transpired had the director of national intelligence appeared before Congress a year ago and stated that within a year, a popular uprising in Egypt would shove Hosni Mubarak out of office. Given the strong U.S. ties to the Mubarak regime, the public utterance of any such prediction would have caused no less a flap than Clapper's remarks about Libya.

The director's appearance last week was part of the intelligence community's annual presentation to Congress of its assessment of threats to U.S. national security worldwide. These statements are crafted to offer a comprehensive view of the external threats facing the United States, but often show deference to political and policy constraints. When there are few such constraints, the public versions of these annual statements can give a good idea of what the intelligence community is thinking and writing about in the classified world. For example, the 2001 edition of the statement -- the last before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and before George W. Bush's administration began selling the idea of launching an offensive war against Iraq -- highlighted terrorism, and especially al Qaeda, as the primary threat to U.S. security while not even mentioning the threat posed by an Iraqi nuclear weapon or any Iraqi stockpiles of other unconventional weapons.

The statements are much less revealing, however, when officials do face political constraints. This year's statement on Afghanistan, for example, is a cautious and factual rendition that does not squarely address the overall direction of the counterinsurgency effort, much less the campaign's effects on combating terrorism -- the presumed rationale for the war. To have done so would have entailed an assessment of the ongoing U.S. military campaign and an implicit criticism of current U.S. policy, both of which are regarded as outside the intelligence community's lane.

Having little more than faint whiffs of the intelligence community's work behind closed doors does not seem to stop the public, the press, Congress, and the commentariat from reaching conclusions about what it has been doing and saying. The public too often assumes that the intelligence community is some sort of Department of Avoiding Surprises and consequently blames it for every unexpected event.

None of this is to say that those who follow the Middle East closely should have been caught off guard by the grievances that have spurred current events. The political and economic ingredients had long been in place for this upheaval to occur. In the 1980s, during Mubarak's early years as Egypt's president, I served as an analyst and later a supervisor for the CIA's analysis of Egypt. Most of the ingredients were present then, too, and though no upheaval happened to occur on my watch, it might have. If it had, given that our assessments were not made public, there no doubt would have subsequently been accusations that the intelligence community had been caught off guard.

In its later years, Mubarak's regime became even more repressive and sclerotic. A senior CIA official told the Senate Intelligence Committee last month that the intelligence community had warned of instability in Egypt, though it did not know what the "triggering mechanism" would be. How could anyone, for example, have expected that a Tunisian street-cart vendor's self-immolation would set the region ablaze? It is utterly impossible for the White House, intelligence services, or anyone else to predict the timing of future unrest. The events in question are not the result of someone's secret plan, discoverable through assiduous and skillful intelligence work. Popular protests of the sort that are currently sweeping the Arab world are instead the spontaneous, unplanned eruption of people's emotions and aspirations.

As policymakers respond to developments in the Middle East, those of us who either criticize or endorse their decisions need to keep in mind what is knowable and what is not. There is much that intelligence services could do to make those decisions well-informed. When it comes to the U.S. response in Libya, for example, policymakers are no doubt seeking to know as much as they can about the composition of the Libyan opposition, which has only recently begun to take shape. Who is exerting the most influence, and what role are extremists playing? Collecting information about this has its own major challenges, but at least it is knowable. Intelligence services may be performing this task well or poorly -- those of us outside government have almost no basis for assessing just how well or how poorly.

But much about the events unfolding in the Middle East is still unknowable, largely because it is unplanned. The generals running Egypt today probably do not know what decisions they will be making months from now, which will in large part determine whether the Egyptian revolution fizzles or turns out to be a major step forward for democracy. If they don't know, then no one else, not even the CIA director, can know either.

Wise policy, on this as well as on any other subject, must be shaped to maximize the benefits for U.S. interests and minimize the costs and risks no matter what turn unknowable events take. Intelligence organizations cannot eliminate the unavoidable uncertainty. Rather, they should be expected to assist policymakers in making their difficult choices by gathering as much information as possible can about what is knowable and, based on that, illuminating likely costs and risks of different outcomes and different courses of action -- no matter how unwelcome the message may be.

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