Winners and losers from Libya … this week

As I type this, most of Tripoli is now in the hands of Transitional National Council forces and supporters, two of Muammar Khaddafi's sons are in custody, and the backbone of Khaddafi's military has been broken. TNC forces do not control all of Libya, but they control an ever-increasing amount of it, including all of its oil infrastructuire. The whereabouts of Gaddafi, Khaddafy, and Qaddafi are still unknown, however.

So, six months after a spontaneous protest movement morphed into armed resistance and NATO got involved.... what does this all mean? With events on the ground still evolving, let me suggest the following list of tentative winners and losers from this operation:


1) The people of Libya. I think it's safe to say that an overwhelming majority of Libyans are pretty pleased that they're no longer living under the thumb of the Qaddafi family. Juan Cole has a pretty triumphalist post up about how this is playing out. He's a bit overoptimistic in places, but this point rings true -- appearances to the contrary, this was not a civil war:

It was not, if by that is meant a fight between two big groups within the body politic. There was nothing like the vicious sectarian civilian-on-civilian fighting in Baghdad in 2006. The revolution began as peaceful public protests, and only when the urban crowds were subjected to artillery, tank, mortar and cluster bomb barrages did the revolutionaries begin arming themselves. When fighting began, it was volunteer combatants representing their city quarters taking on trained regular army troops and mercenaries. That is a revolution, not a civil war. Only in a few small pockets of territory, such as Sirte and its environs, did pro-Qaddafi civilians oppose the revolutionaries, but it would be wrong to magnify a handful of skirmishes of that sort into a civil war. Qaddafi’s support was too limited, too thin, and too centered in the professional military, to allow us to speak of a civil war.

Brian Whitaker makes similar points in The Guardian. This fact does not necessarily mean that an armed insurgency won't persist, but even if it does, it would lack domestic political legitimacy.

2) NATO. Quick, was the 1999 Kosovo operation a NATO success or a failure? During the operation, it seemed like a failure, as a) everyone thought it was taking too long; and b) the operation expost the operational gaps between the U.S. and European forces. After Kosovo ended, however, it seemed like a victory... because it was.

This operation parallels the rhythms of the Kosovo intervention, but in many ways represents a bigger victory. The UK and France shouldered a greater share of the burden, there were no casualties in the alliance, and this operation directly led to regime change (whereas Kosovo had only an indirect effect on Serbia). As Blake Hounshell has observed, at the cost of $1 billion, Western involvement was totally worth it.

3) Air power advocates. Eric Schmitt and Steven Lee Myers' New York Times account of the march into Tripoli suggests the ways in which NATO air power played a critical role in aiding TNC forces on the ground. Stepping back, one has to conclude that NATO's air power was a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for Libya to play out the way it did. Despite some neoconservative calls for even heavier intervention, however, Western boots on the ground were not necessary.

4) Tunisia and Egypt. If TNC forces are able to consolidate their hold on Libya and restore some semblance of law and order, that means the return of more than 680,000 Libyan refugees. This would be good not just for Libya proper, but for the countries housing most of these refugees -- namely, Egypt and Tunisia. These countries are attempt their own transition into more representative regimes. Eliminating the socioeconomic pressure of displaced Libyans is an unalloyed good thing for the political development of Libya's neighbors.

5) President Obama.  To quote Eli Lake: "President Birth Certificate has done what Reagan and W could not: end Gadhafi's reign and kill bin Laden." It's worth noting that oth operations took more than six months to play out. While he won't necessarily be this blunt about it, Obama can now credibly argue that patience + determinaion = badass military statecraft.



1) Other authoritarian despots, particularly in Africa.  I don't want to overstate this -- I'm skeptical that the scenes from Tripoli will lead to spontaneous uprisings in Damascus and elsewhere. Still, this is the kind of event that will always make other despots nervous.

In the case of African authoritarians or quasi-authoritarians, the fall of Khaddafi also leads to the permanent end of a pipeline of cash from Libya to his friends in Africa.

2) U.S. cable news networks. Useless. Totally f$%*ing useless. Seriously, until FOX news started airing live footage from its SkyNews partner, I got vastly more information from my Twitter feed than any of the cable news nets. That's when they were even covering events in Tripoli -- I think it took MSNBC something like five hours to realize there was something worth covering. Yesterday's performance was just embarrassing.

3) Realists. The United States should never have intervened!! It's a civil war!!! Libya is an example of the militarization of American foreign policy!! The U.S. will be drawn into an expensive quagmire that is not a core national interest!! Air power alone will never work!! Many, many other realist cliches!!


Readers are warmly welomed to provide realist rationalizations for why they are still right/will be proven right in the future in the comments.

4) KT McFarland. There has been a lot of stupid American punditry on Libya, but I think McFarland's FoxNews.com essay from last Friday takes the cake as the Dumbest Thing I've Read on Libya in the past month.  Thankfully, it's also completely obsolete.

5) President Obama.  [Wait, how is he a winner and a loser?!--ed.] On the one hand, Obama certainly wins by insulating himself against foreign policy criticism. On the other hand, foreign policy victories in the bank are quickly forgotten -- just look at the way in which bin Laden's death translated into a transitory blip for Obama's popularity.

In 2012, the only issue any voter cares about is the economy. A successful operation in Libya will mean less news coverage about Libya and even more coverage of the economy … which is not exactly Obama's strong suit at the moment.


The "this week" portion of the blog post title suggests tentativeness of these assessments (see also Peter Feaver and Steve Walt on this point). Nevertheless... am I missing anything?

Daniel W. Drezner

When the United States says "jump," Syria says....

So the big Middle East news this AM is that the Obama administration has explicitly called for Syrian leader Bashir Assad to leave power.  The White House blog has the full text of Obama's statement.  On Assad:

The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people.  We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way.  He has not led.  For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.

The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement. What the United States will support is an effort to bring about a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians. We will support this outcome by pressuring President Assad to get out of the way of this transition, and standing up for the universal rights of the Syrian people along with others in the international community.

As to what the administraion is going to do to, well, you can check out the executive order, or you can believe me when I say that it amounts to a tightening of economic sanctions. 

Now, conservatives have been calling for this move for quite some time, while Middle East analysts like FP's Marc Lynch, have been far more pessimistic.  Two months ago, Lynch argued

[T]here's "Expellus Assadum":  the magic words by which Obama might declare that Asad must go and somehow make it so. While there's every reason for the U.S. to ratchet up its rhetorical criticism of an increasingly violent and brutal regime, tougher rhetoric isn't going to change the game.  The entire course of the Arab upheavals this year demonstrates the limits of American influence and control over events or other regional actors.  It most certainly proves that firm Presidential rhetoric is not enough to tip either the internal or the international diplomatic balance.  

Libya should be enough to demonstrate this hard reality.  I'm actually optimistic about Libya -- the diplomatic and military trends all clearly favor the rebels, the NTC has come together into an impressive government-in-waiting, and international consensus has remained reasonably strong. But even if Libya ends well, the reality is that it has taken months under nearly the best possible conditions.  It isn't just that the President used his magic words.  The Libya operation had widespread regional and international support, UN authorization, direct military involvement in a favorable environment for airpower, and an organized and effective opposition on the ground with a viable political leadership. And it has ground on for months. 

The idea that invoking "Expellus Assadum" would quickly lead to an endgame in Syria just doesn't make sense. Demanding that Obama say "Assad must go" seems less about Assad and more about either moral posturing or about creating a rhetorical lever for pressuring Washington -- not Damascus -- to do more to deliver on that new commitment. By putting the President's -- and America's -- credibility on the line, however, it might force unwanted escalation into more concrete actions in order to deliver on the demand. So tougher and sharper rhetoric, with constant condemnations of violence, is not just appropriate but essential... but escalating to "Assad must go" at this point is not. 

I've already revealed my sober assessment of this kind of policy step on Twitter.  That said, I'm a bit more sanguine about this kind of call than Lynch.  This strikes me as your classic gut-level foreign policy pronouncement, which, as I argued last month, accomplishes nothing of substance but, "just the acknowledgment of frustration can be politically useful, a venting of pressure that might otherwise lead to hopelessly misguided or absurdly risky policy options."   

I suspect Marc is still haunted by the ways in which this sort of rhetoric about Saddam Hussein in the 1990s laid the political groundwork for Operation Iraqi Freedom.   But it's not the 1990's anymore.  The United States has three active military operations in the Middle East.  There is no public clamor or enthusiasm for yet another military engagement, nor do I see any genuine policy appetite for such a move.  Sanctions are already in place.  Covert action might be taking place, but that policy option can never be publicly acknowledged.  As the New York Times story notes, in calling for Assad to leave the United States is now moving towards the consensus in the region. 

When the rest of the policy quiver has been exhausted, sure, why not call for Assad to leave?  As a general rule, all else equal, I see no reason why the U.S. government should not express its actual preferences rather than hide behind diplomatese.  Or, as Douglas Adams would put it, this rhetorical move counts as "harmless." 

What do you think?