What does the U.N.'s decision mean for Libya? For the rest of the world? (UPDATED)

The UN Security Council has authorized the use of force to prevent the loyalist forces backing Muammar al-Qaddafi from moving on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Given some of the statements Qaddafi has made in recent days -- in effect threatening some sort of bloodbath against anyone who does not surrender to his troops -- this reaction isn't all that surprising. It is one thing to decide that an authoritarian crackdown is ultimately not worth the risk of war, but rather different to turn a blind eye when a dictator with a very checkered past starts threatening mass killings. Nonetheless, I have three comments to make about this latest turn of events.

First, as I wrote a few days ago, this really ought to be a European operation, because Europe has far more significant strategic interests at stake than we do. The United States could provide both diplomatic and logistical back-up, but this is an ideal opportunity for Europeans to learn that they should stop adopting lofty moral positions and then expect Uncle Sucker to do the heavy lifting. U.S. insistence that Arab forces participate in any future operation strikes me as exactly right; the last thing that either Europe or America wants is to be seen as replaying past colonial interventions in some new guise.

Second, the best hope here is that the onset of airstrikes quickly demoralizes the loyalist forces, tips the balance of resolve back toward the rebels, and maybe even convinces Qaddafi to blow town. This might happen, of course, but there are some reasons to be skeptical. Back in 1999, Madeleine Albright thought a few days of airstrikes would convince Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate in the Kosovo War, but the war actually dragged on weeks and he surrendered only after his Russian patrons withdrew their support and convinced him to cut a deal. The problem is that Qaddafi doesn't have a lot of attractive options besides fighting on, which is precisely why he's chosen to act as he has.

Furthermore, using airpower against Qaddafi's army isn't a simple matter, particularly if they taken some elementary precautions, like dispersing or camouflaging equipment. We can bomb airfields and ground air assets, and probably do a number on his command-and-control system, but it's not clear how much that would affect his ability to conduct ground operations against the lightly armed and poorly trained rebel forces. The U.S. Air Force had a lot of trouble finding and destroying Serb military targets during the Kosovo war, and most of the damage it did came from attacks on fixed targets like bridges and power grids.

Let's also remember that we are going to miss some targets and inflict some collateral damage too (remember that Chinese embassy in Belgrade?). As far as I know, we don't have spotters on the ground to do laser target designation, and sending special forces to perform that task has obvious risks of its own. If Qaddafi's forces move into populated areas than even precision guided weapons could kill a lot of innocent bystanders. In fact, going after his ground forces is likely to require attack helicopters and other short-range aircraft (not strategic bombers), and that means using carrier aviation. Which in turn means Uncle Sam. My point is that this situation doesn't seem well-suited to the kind of devastating air assault that we conducted with heavy bombers against the Iraqi army at the start of Desert Storm, or even the adroit and successful air and special forces campaign that ousted the Taliban in 2001-2002.

Third, this whole debate on Libya underscores the importance of something that enthusiastic war hawks always forget: opportunity costs. Just imagine how different this discussion might be if the United States hadn't already fought a long, costly, and unsuccessful war in Iraq, and if we weren't now bogged down in another quagmire in Afghanistan. For that matter, it would look different if Barack Obama had wisely chosen to get out of Afghanistan back in 2009, so that the U.S. military could start rebuilding itself after a decade or war. If we do go into Libya, and it ends up being harder than we think, and then something serious happens somewhere else (North Korea, the South China Sea, Sudan, the Horn of Africa, Mexico, etc.), what do we do then?

It is obviously excruciating to watch a tyrant like Qaddafi defy a popular uprising, and kill his own countrymen solely for the purpose of defending his egomaniacal rule. Let us therefore hope that this politico-military equivalent of a Hail Mary pass will work. Let us also give some credit to Obama's diplomacy: instead of making this yet another impulsive American crusade, he has insisted that the United States be part of a genuine, diverse international coalition. He's not dragging the country to war; he's waited until others have been positively begging us to do something. If it succeeds, we can all be pleased. If it goes badly, or proves more difficult than we think, at least the United States won't be bearing all of the responsibility or all of the costs. That's something. But we will be bearing some of the burden, and it's by no means obvious that it will be worth it.

UPDATE:  In an encouraging sign, the Qaddafi regime has reacted to the UN resolution by declaring an immediate cease-fire, which suggests that prospect of outside intervention has induced some second thoughts about his campaign to crush the rebellion by force.  The offer has been rejected by the Western powers, who are reportedly demaind concrete steps (such as a withdrawal off his forces from Benghazi) and not just words.  This diplomatic dance shows just how uncertain and open-ended this whole business could be: Qaddafi may be unable to retake the whole country now, but the rebels may not be able to force him out either in the absence of direct outside involvement (possibly including troops on the ground).  And if that happens, we could be back in the business of occupying a Muslim country that is internally divided and has been severely damaged by decades of misrule and economic sanctions. For a good analysis, see FP's Marc Lynch here.


Stephen M. Walt

A Realist Celebration of St. Patrick's Day

This is a guest post by Sean Kay of Ohio Wesleyan University.

As the world goes green for St. Patrick' Day, it is good to reflect on what Ireland's experiences teach us. We might ask, why should a realist care about Ireland? What might be learned from the experiences of this small Island in the North Atlantic -- home to just 4.5 million people?

Realists care about strategy, of course, which is one good reason to ponder Irish history. Ireland was for centuries a key component of England's rear defense against the risk of foreign enemies. Realists also are keen to understand new tactics in warfare and anyone wishing to get a sense of how guerilla campaigns proceed -- and how state responses to them can backfire would be well advised to study Michael Collins and the Irish quest for independence. Add to that the personal risks to those who negotiate an exchange of land for peace -- Michael Collins to Yitzhak Rabin show this only too tragically. The Irish experience in managing its strategic relationship with Britain after independence -- by building tight transatlantic advocacy networks and by integrating into the European community -- also demonstrates how creative diplomacy can achieve major strategic goals.

Ireland is also an interesting case of a state applying realism and ideals in its foreign policy, a topic that realists and others have debated for decades. Ireland remained neutral in World War II because it wished to consolidate its independence and avoid conscription of its people into the British army. Nonetheless, Ireland cooperated in both overt and secret assistance to the allied powers -- likewise during the Cold War. Ireland also advocated the cause of self-determination for all nations at the United Nations -- out of moral sympathy, but also as a way to keep its own views towards Northern Ireland on the agenda of global politics. Ireland managed to show how small nations can lead on a range of issues from peacekeeping to nuclear proliferation. It is often forgotten, but the origins of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty can be found in speeches by the Irish foreign minister at the United Nations in the late 1950s.

In the early 1990s, realists emphasized the partition of territory and the separation of populations and fighting forces in conflict zones, largely to create stable balances of power in places like the Balkans. Northern Ireland offers a similar illustration today. Northern Ireland was very successful at "peacemaking" -- building a new system of governance. But the process of peace-building -- confidence building and integration at the ground level remains only in its nascent stage. Key areas of Northern Ireland, especially in parts of Belfast remain in what is often characterized as a "benign Apartheid". "Peace walls" continue to divide street-by-street Catholic and Protestant communities. Education and public housing remain segregated. The irony is that peace-building in Northern Ireland requires breaking down those walls. But in so doing, also risks sparking street-to-street conflict once again. In effect, Northern Ireland shows that the real hard work to build peace takes generations, and that one has to look carefully at where the various security-dilemmas sit.

The Northern Ireland experience has implications for efforts to bring peace to the Middle East between Israel and Palestinians. In parts of Belfast one can visit Protestant neighborhoods where the Union Jack flag flies on houses, alongside the Israeli flag and many welcome signs say "Shalom". Some loyalist Protestant hold-outs identify with Jewish settlers and see themselves as under threat from all sides. Irish officials also point out to the Israelis that a central lesson of the Northern Ireland experience was that heavy handed tactics of the British forces only instilled more support for groups like the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. In the case of Northern Ireland, the essential ingredient of peace was a realpolitik decision to bring former terrorist sympathizers into the negotiations, which gave legitimacy to them but also gave them the tools they needed to invest in peace within their communities. Still, their engagement was conditioned on rejecting violence and monitored disarmament -- something that might remain far off for Hamas.

Crucially, Ireland today also teaches us that containment still matters, albeit in economic form. Ireland is in the midst of one of the most serious economic declines in modern history. Ireland's crash was a hyper-bubble of what happened in America -- unregulated banking and a massive mortgage crisis that made a Las Vegas Casino look like a Church. Ireland offered an initial banking guarantee that would have been the equivalent of $30 trillion in the United States. It has undergone deep austerity that is deeply deflationary, and today this nation of 4.5 million have a gross external debt of $867 billion.

Ireland's European allies have bailed out the Irish banks via the European Union and the IMF with a very expensive refinancing package. For the moment, at least, Ireland has lost most of its economic sovereignty. But Europe is clearly not motivated by altruism, for it is the Irish people who are suffering and who did not cause their crisis. Europe leans toward containment. The interest rate on the bailout of 5.8 percent is simply too high and, left unchanged, will lead to a catastrophic default sooner or later. But Europe appears to see Ireland as a way to shore up banking exposure there and send a strong deterrent signal to larger economies like Spain and Italy that if they do not get their budgets in line, they will pay a very high cost. At the core of this fear of contagion and dominoes is a strong desire to contain what has become an existential threat to the Eurozone.

Realists also care about human nature, and in the Hobbesian sense it being fundamentally rooted in evil and pessimism. The Irish people today are paying the price for a culture of greed that overtook the nation during the Celtic Tiger. It was a "cult of money" that overruled basic commonsense across society. But this was an aberration in Ireland's long arch of history. The Irish character is rooted in a sense of humility and a thoughtfulness of character -- and the Irish greet the daily grind with hopefulness and dogged optimism about the possibilities of the future -- waiting at the end of the rainbow. Still, as Yeats said, "Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy."

As we all rev up our Irishness for a day, it is worth appreciating how much this small nation has shaped the world. Ireland has been at the forefront of globalization. Ireland has been at the forefront of peacemaking. Ireland has an innovative and dynamic foreign policy. Ireland has embraced multiculturalism as a tool to attract investment. Ireland is paving the way in wind and wave energy research. I conclude my book, Celtic Revival? with a story about a young girl in Clare whom I asked to suggest a title. She responded with a truth that only a child can know: "The Great Country Known as Ireland". Ireland has the foundations to revive itself, and as it does so, the lessons it provides might well be the most important export from which we all can learn.

Sean Kay is professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University, and a Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. He is the author of Celtic Revival?: The Rise, Fall, and Renewal of Global Ireland (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

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