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The U.N.'s High Stakes Gamble in Libya

Yesterday's UN Security Council vote authorizing a No-Fly Zone and more against Libya has brought the United States and its allies into another Middle Eastern war.  The charge leveled by advocates of the war that Obama has been "dithering" is as silly as is the counter-argument that the West has been itching for an excuse to invade Libya to seize its oil.  The administration clearly understands that military intervention in Libya is a terrible idea, and hoped for as long as possible that the Libyan opposition could prevail without outside military assistance.  It only signed on to the intervention when it became clear that, as DNI James Clapper testifed to great public abuse, Qaddafi had tipped the balance and was likely to win. The prospect of Qaddafi surviving and taking his revenge on his people and the region is what forced the hand of the United States and the Security Council.

I'm conflicted about the intervention, torn between the anguished appeals from Libyans and Arabs desperate for support against Qaddafi and concerns about the many deep, unanswered and at this point largely unasked questions about what comes next -- whether Qaddafi survives or falls.  Now, the hope has to be that the UN's resolution will quickly lead Qaddafi's regime to crumble and create the conditions for a rapid political process to change that regime without the actual use of military force.  

The intervention is a high-stakes gamble. If it succeeds quickly, and Qaddafi's regime crumbles as key figures jump ship in the face of its certain demise, then it could reverse the flagging fortunes of the Arab uprisings.  Like the first Security Council resolution on Libya, it could send a powerful message that the use of brutal repression makes regime survival less rather than more likely. It would put real meat on the bones of the "Responsibility to Protect" and help create a new international norm.  And it could align the U.S. and the international community with al-Jazeera and the aspirations of the Arab protest movement.  I have heard from many protest leaders from other Arab countries that success in Libya would galvanize their efforts, and failure might crush their hopes.  

But if it does not succeed quickly, and the intervention degenerates into a long quagmire of air strikes, grinding street battles, and growing pressure for the introduction of outside ground forces, then the impact could be quite different.  Despite the bracing scenes of Benghazi erupting into cheers at the news of the Resolution, Arab support for the intervention is not nearly as deep as it seems and will not likely survive an extended war.  If Libyan civilians are killed in airstrikes, and especially if foreign troops enter Libyan territory, and images of Arabs killed by U.S. forces replace images of brave protestors battered by Qaddafi's forces on al-Jazeera, the narrative could change quickly into an Iraq-like rage against Western imperialism.   What began as an indigenous peaceful Arab uprising against authoritarian rule could collapse into a spectacle of war and intervention. 

The Libya intervention is also complicated by the trends in the rest of the region. There is currently a bloody crackdown going on in U.S.-backed Bahrain, with the support of Saudi Arabia and the GCC.   The Yemeni regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh is currently carrying out some of its bloodiest repression yet.  Will the Responsibility to Protect extend to Bahrain and Yemen?  This is not a tangential point.  One of the strongest reasons to intervene in Libya is the argument that the course of events there will influence the decisions of other despots about the use of force.  If they realize that the international community will not allow the brutalization of their own people, and a robust new norm created, then intervention in Libya will pay off far beyond its borders.  But will ignoring Bahrain and Yemen strangle that new norm in its crib? 

On my flight to Beirut earlier this month, I read the new book by Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose, How Wars End.   Rose warns that leaders should never go into a military intervention without thinking through the political endgame. Again and again, he warns, the United States has gone into wars focused on the urgency of the need for action without thinking through where it really wants and needs to go.  War advocates prefer to focus on the urgency of action, usually minimizing the likely risks and costs of war, exaggerating the likely benefits, and discounting the viability of all non-military courses of action -- exactly the script on Libya the last few weeks.  Thinking about the messy endgame would only complicate such advocacy, and so it gets set aside. 

One might think that the disastrous post-war trajectories of Iraq and Afghanistan would have forever ended such an approach to military interventions, but here we are. Has anyone really seriously thought through the role the U.S. or international community might be expected to play should Qaddafi fall?  Or what steps will follow should the No Fly Zone and indirect intervention not succeed in driving Qaddafi from power? No, there's no time for that... there never is.  For now, I will be hoping, deeply and fervently, that the Libyan regime quickly crumbles in the face of the international community's actions.  Reports that it has accepted the resolution and a ceasefire could provide the space for the kind of political settlement many of us have been advocating.  Let's hope. 

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