Don't exaggerate Arab support for Libya No Fly Zone

The approval by the Arab League of a No-Fly Zone for Libya, combined with increasingly urgent appeals from the Libyan opposition and some Arab voices, has helped build support for an international and American move in that direction. I am just leaving the Al-Jazeera Forum in Doha, where I had the opportunity to discuss this question in depth with a wide range of Arab opinion leaders and political activists as well as several leading Libyan opposition representatives (see this excellent post by Steve Clemons from the same conference). There is both more and less to this Arab support than meets the eye. Arabs are indeed deeply concerned about the bloody stalemate in Libya, and want international action. But if that action takes military form, including the kind of bombing would actually be required to implement a No-Fly Zone, I suspect that the narrative would rapidly shift against the United States.

While Arab public opinion should not be the sole consideration in shaping American decisions on this difficult question, Americans also should not fool themselves into thinking that an American military intervention will command long-term popular Arab support. Every Arab opinion leader and Libyan representative I spoke with at the conference told me that "American military intervention is absolutely unacceptable." Their support for a No Fly Zone rapidly evaporates when discussion turns to American bombing campaigns. This tracks with what I see in the Arab media and the public conversation. As urgently as they want the international community to come to the aid of the Libyan people, The U.S. would be better served focusing on rapid moves toward non-military means of supporting the Libyan opposition.

The deep concern for Libya is real, intense, and passionate. Arab activists and opinion leaders repeatedly warned that if Qaddafi survives it could mean the death of the Arab revolutionary moment. This is part of the wider identification across the unified Arab political space which has palpably emerged among young activists and mass publics. This includes Bahrain, by the way, where the intervention by GCC security forces against the protestors has had a comparable chilling effect even if it has received less coverage on al-Jazeera than has Libya. There is no question that most Arabs desperately want something to be done to save Libya from Qaddafi, and that this is seen as having broad and deep regional implications.

When it comes to military intervention, however, this deep identification with the Libyan protestors intersects uncomfortably with the enduring legacy of Iraq. The prospect of an American military intervention, no matter how just the cause, triggers deep suspicion. There is a vanishingly small number of Arab takers for the bizarre American conceit that the invasion of Iraq has somehow been vindicated. The invasion and occupation of Iraq remains a gaping wound in the Arab political consciousness which has barely scabbed over. Any direct American military presence in Libya would be politically catastrophic, even if requested by the Libyan opposition and given Arab League cover.

A No-Fly Zone with Arab and UN cover would be more palatable, if controversial, but any serious analysis must take into account the likelihood that it would not work and would only pave the way to more direct military action. While I supported it early on, I have learned much from the debate which has ensued. I understand and sympathize with the moral urgency to do something for Libya.  But that should not blind us to the costs and risks of a no-fly zone and the limited prospects that it would tip the balance.  It isn't a costless, easy alternative to war... it is more likely the preface to deeper military involvement.  I am frankly baffled that anyone would take seriously the clamoring of inveterate hawks to ignore the reservations of the military and jump into another ill-considered military adventure in the Middle East. Listening to assurances that military action will be smooth and cheap, with no complications and with great Arab support brings back all the bad memories of 2002. Discussing a No-Fly Zone means discussing the possibility of military invasion. Anything else is irresponsible.

That doesn't mean the U.S. should do nothing. The administration should move quickly and aggressively to recognize the provisional Libyan government, release the frozen Libyan assets to that provisional government, and allow the flow of weapons to them. It should push for ever tighter targeted sanctions against Qaddafi, and continue to mobilize international consensus against his regime to make sure that he remains an absolute pariah without access to international institutions, revenues, or support. It could jam Qaddafi's communications and provide intelligence, and more. The debate should move away from an exclusive focus on military action. That is a dead end where we have been before, and should not be going again.

Flickr Creative Commons, March 12, 2011

Marc Lynch

An Odd Calm in Beirut

I've spent the last few days in Beirut, thanks to a kind invitation from the American University of Beirut to give a talk about the role of the new media in the wave of Arab uprisings.  I took advantage of the trip to meet with a wide range of Lebanese politicians and political strategists, journalists and academics, as well as some local NGO specialists and some of that "youth" you hear so much about these days. And a really crazy taxi driver, but that's another story.  The highlight, perhaps, was the young woman at Saad Hariri's office, who had absolutely no idea who I was before I introduced myself, carefully perusing The Middle East Channel on her laptop.  

What struck me most about my conversations was the sense of calm, even complacency, in the Lebanese political class about the stability of the political scene and of their relative insulation from the wave of Arab protests.   Across political trends, few seemed especially worried that Lebanon would experience any kind of protest wave, or that the forthcoming indictments by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon would lead to any particular turbulence. Indeed, there was little sense that they were especially affected by the Arab revolutions.  I can't quite decide whether to be reassured by this confidence that Lebanon really was different, or worried that it reflects an out-of-touch political elite about to be rudely surprised.  

The argument for Lebanon's relative insulation from the Arab protest wave has some merits.  The confessional system means that there is no single, consensus focal point for discontent, and great difficulty in organizing any kind of cross-confessional movement. Egyptians could all agree that Mubarak must go and Tunisians could agree on Ben Ali, but Lebanese would have to focus on the relative abstraction of the confessional system (I really don't think that Hezbollah's weapons can be such a unifying focus for popular mobilization, despite the hopes of the March 14 strategists).  There had in fact recently been a youth protest against the confessional system, but almost everyone I talked to dismissed the call as unrealistic --- an admirable goal for the distant future, but impractical today and probably a trojan horse for Shi'a power-seeking according to some of the Christians.

Besides the deep structure of the confessional system, many pointed to the intensely polarized, bipolar nature of the current political Lebanese system as an obstacle to such a popular movement.  Also, the crowded television media environment in Lebanon means that al-Jazeera can't command the same kind of overwhelming attention which it attracts in other Arab countries.  Finally, for what it's worth, many in the March 14 camp argued that the Cedar Revolution had already been the Lebanese version of today's Arab uprisings.  I don't know... is this more convincing than the "Egypt isn't Tunisia" talk of which we heard so much in the days before January 25?

I was more surprised at the extent to which the Tribunal's reportedly upcoming indictments are now taken in stride, in sharp contrast to the hysteria a few months ago about impending civil war. I heard from both sides of the political divide that the constant discussion of the likely indictments of Hezbollah has in a sense neutralized it as an issue.  It's already been so thoroughly aired that there won't be a major shock, people on both sides suggested, and neither side has any interest in seeing an escalation to street violence.  Even March 14 partisans grudgingly acknowledge, for the most part, that the Tribunal now suffers from a credibility problem -- even if they didn't like what I wrote about it a few months ago, bitterly dispute the critique, fervently hope for justice to be done, and blame it on Hezbollah propaganda.  

The main way that my contacts see the Arab uprisings affecting Lebanon is through their impact on the broader regional environment and particular actors.  Tunisia didn't matter much to them, but the fall of Mubarak and Omar Suleiman removed their role from the Lebanese arena.  I heard less about Libya than about Bahrain, which most seemed to view through a sectarian lens, and concerns about Saudi Arabia and Jordan.  There is some concern about what Israel might do, but it doesn't seem to be a pressing issue. Interestingly, I heard little support for the notion that regional events were increasing Iran's power, even from people from whom I might have expected it, and even less for the idea that the uprisings were good for the United States.  And almost all insisted repeatedly and urgently that the United States needed to push Israel towards serious peace talks with the Palestinians if it hoped to see moderate or pro-American forces succeeding in the new Arab environment.  

This isn't to say that the political scene is quiet, of course.  Elite politics goes on with all its intensity and gamesmanship. March 14 has decided to not join the new government of Najib Mikati, and seems somewhat liberated by the luxury of political opposition. They plan a large rally for Sunday which will focus on the issue of Hezbollah's arms.  There is the usual bickering and in-fighting over government portfolios, and the usual polarization.  But all of this seems to be understood as elite politics as usual. 

Frankly, it seems odd for Lebanon to feel so calm while the whole Arab world is in turmoil.  And after watching so many other Arab publics join in the protest wave, I can't help but wonder whether the elites are misjudging the potential for different forms of mobilization.   Strange times....  


March 6, 2011 protest, La Shaque via Flickr Creative Commons