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. 

Marc Lynch

Bahrain Brings Back the Sectarianism

While the American and international debate over Libya continues, the situation in Bahrain has just taken a sharp turn for the worse.  A brutal crackdown on the protestors followed the controversial entry of security forces from Saudi Arabia and three other GCC states.  Media access has been curtailed, with journalists finding it difficult to gain entry to the Kingdom (I was supposed to be in Bahrain right now myself, but elected not to try after several journalists let me know that they were being denied entry and several Embassies in Doha warned me off).  The road to political compromise and meaningful reform -- which appeared to have been within reach only a few days ago -- now appears to be blocked, which places the long-term viability of the Bahraini regime in serious question.

The response of the Bahraini regime has implications far beyond the borders of the tiny island Kingdom -- not only because along with Libya it has turned the hopeful Arab uprisings into something uglier, but because it is unleashing a regionwide resurgence of sectarian Sunni-Shi'a animosity.  Regional actors have enthusiastically bought in to the sectarian framing, with Saudi Arabia fanning the flames of sectarian hostility in defense of the Bahraini regime and leading Shia figures rising to the defense of the protestors.  The tenor of Sunni-Shi'a relations across the region is suddenly worse than at any time since the frightening days following the spread of the viral video of Sadrists celebrating the execution of Saddam Hussein.

The sectarian framing in Bahrain is a deliberate regime strategy, not an obvious "reality." The Bahraini protest movement, which emerged out of years of online and offline activism and campaigns, explicitly rejected sectarianism and sought to emphasize instead calls for democratic reform and national unity.  While a majority of the protestors were Shi'a, like the population of the Kingdom itself, they insisted firmly that they represented the discontent of both Sunnis and Shi'ites, and framed the events as part of the Arab uprisings seen from Tunisia to Libya.  Their slogans were about democracy and human rights, not Shi'a particularism, and there is virtually no evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that their efforts were inspired or led by Iran. 

The Bahraini regime responded not only with violent force, but also by encouraging a nasty sectarianism in order to divide the popular movement and to build domestic and regional support for a crackdown. Anti-Shi'a vituperation spread through the Bahraini public arena, including both broadcast media and increasingly divided social media networks. This sectarian framing also spread through the Arab media, particularly Saudi outlets.  The sectarian frame resonated with the narratives laid in the dark days of the mid-2000s, when scenes of Iraqi civil war and Hezbollah's rise in Lebanon filled Arab television screens, pro-U.S. Arab leaders spread fears of a "Shi'a Crescent", and the Saudis encouraged anti-Shi'ism in order to build support for confronting Iranian influence.  

Now, the struggle for democracy and human rights in Bahrain seems to have been fully consumed by this cynical sectarian framing, and the regional Saudi-Iranian cold war which had been largely left behind by the Arab uprisings has suddenly returned to center stage. The sending of Saudi and GCC security forces to Bahrain follows on similar political campaigns, while the regime's positions and sectarian framing have been backed across the Gulf media -- including al-Jazeera Arabic, which has barely covered Bahrain even as it has focused heavily on Libya, Egypt, and Yemen.  Meanwhile, leading Shi'a political figures across the region, from Hassan Nasrallah to Ali Sistani, are rushing to the defense of the protestors. Both have the effect of reinforcing the sectarian frame and distracting from the calls for democratic change.

The United States may see the preservation of the Bahraini regime as essential to its strategic position, given its concerns about the Fifth Fleet and about losing a key part of its decades-long strategy of containing Iranian power.  But what the Bahraini regime is doing to maintain power may badly hurt America's position as well.  The harsh repression, immediately and publicly following the visit of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, suggests either American complicity or impotence.   The refusal of serious reform probably makes the survival of the regime less rather than more likely. And finally, the sectarian framing of Bahrain has the potential to rebound upon other Arab states with significant Shi'a populations, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It may also drive Iraq's leaders into a more assertively Shi'a and pro-Iranian stance, as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his rivals seek to win popularity with Iraqi Shi'a who identify with their Bahraini counterparts.  If the Obama administration hopes to define a new vision for the region, it needs to leave behind such outdated concepts and lines of division. Bahrain, sadly, with the help of its regional allies, has brought them back into fashion. 


Flickr Creative Commons, March 4, 2011