Libya: Some reasons why America’s best play would have been to stay out of it

American involvement in Libya is problematic, to say the least. Here are some of the things that probably went through the mind of the Secretary of Defense (and probably also of State) when it became clear that Obama was going to direct military involvement regardless what his advisory staff had to say:

1- The situation in Libya is unclear enough that it is difficult to determine whether or not Ghaddafi was really targeting civilians or tribal combatant affiliates. Definitions of irregular tribal and rebel forces are tricky enough in the best of times, and Libya has never had anything approaching “good times” to begin with. The humanitarian crisis and human rights logic is flimsy.

2- There is no indication, much less a guarantee, that the next tyrant to come to power in Libya after Ghaddafi would be any more morally acceptable to the West. In fact we have many indications to the contrary. Most importantly Ghaddafi was already a known quantity — he came to power and maintained support by being a Muslim populist who sponsored terrorist acts against the West. That he found it a useful realpolitik play to temper such behavior over the last few decades tells us a lot about how pragmatic he really is. But on the other hand that maintaining popular support in the days when he had just come into office through a coup and his grip on power was not yet completely secure required a public appeal through Islamic terrorism should tell us a lot about Libyan civil society — and indicates that democracy is about the last thing the Europeans, Americand, Africans, Asians or Moon People should want to see happen in Libya.

3- There are no actual alternatives to Ghaddafi other than fractitcious tribal civil war until one of four things happen:

  1. The end of time
  2. Another competent and ruthless tyrant is found
  3. The country splits back into its former geographic balance with Tripolitania becoming one nation and Cyrenacia becoming another (which would be an Egyptian proxy state and likely a breeding ground for terrorism)
  4. A foreign power decides to colonize the country (again) in a fashion that puts local barbarism to shame

In all cases, what would be gained? Tribal warfare in North Africa is not known for being particularly nice and well mannered. Entire families get wiped out, regardless of age, gender or disposition specifically because the existence of surviving family becomes a critical threat later. This is simply the way things work, but it is also one simple definition of “genocide” — a term that puts human rights activists through the roof.

4- There are no clear objectives to the campaign. We are not seeking regime change, so they say. If this is true, then we are recognizing, if not respecting, Ghaddafi as the legitimate ruler of Libya. If this is the case, why are we dicking around in Libya’s internal affairs? I’m sure that if Virginia were to attack Washington, D.C. next week President Obama would be really pissed if the French and Libyan air forces showed up to stall out the federal counter offensive just shy of capturing Richmond. So if we’re not seeking regime change, what are we after?

5- The eastern part of the country has long been the part where bad guys come from. A large percentage of the unemployed troublemakers in the east turned up in Iraq to fight the Americans. Ghaddafi thought this was just fine, because it meant me and my friends got to take care of them instead of him having to worry about doing it himself (similar logic was behind the Saudis allowing their trouble makers to travel to Afghanistan to get killed by the Soviets in the 1980’s).

6- If we are, in fact, after regime change (which seems to be the real message when Obama says “we aren’t after regime change… Ghaddafi must step down”) the idea that we can cause a regime change with air power alone is totally mistaken. Libya in 2011 is not Yugoslavia in 1999. There are no politically mature alternatives to Ghaddafi waiting in the wings (remember the lawyer and the general talking shit about each other to the BBC about who was really in charge of the eastern council at the outset of this?). If Ghaddafi leaves we will have a tribal war on our hands in any case, which can be viewed as a multi-faceted insurgency stew, or as a multi-way civil war — pick one that fits your definition/worldview best.

7- The longer Libya is mixed up and in turmoil the more chance Egypt’s covert services have a chance to get their fingers in. This would give Egypt a chance to re-start their defunct proxy militia programs on the side of their country which is far from Israel and other prying Western eyes. The initial purpose of such proxy militant groups would probably be to counter Iran’s proxy militant play, but the long term implications of such a move are unpredictable at best and very likely to turn out badly both for Egypt and for the West by the end. The problem is that religion is the best motivator for militant proxy groups in the Middle East and Africa. Religious reasoning, being quasi philosophical in nature (and full of very deliberate, violent death-cult theologic reasoning and justification in the case of Islam), tends to take on a life of its own that is very unpredictable because it is subject to so much whim and interpretation. The fact that Islam is still such a violent motivator even in the absence of political motivation several hundred years after the disappearance of its sponsor and creator (Muhammad) should tell us something. (Organized and state sponsored Christian violence, on the other hand, almost always includes a concrete political motive and seems to require one to motivate people to fight.) This is only partially true when a militant proxy is motivated by pure politics — Socialist and Communist insurgencies largely disappearing after the fall of the Soviet Union is the traditional counter example. In the end, we don’t want eastern Libya to be confused for too long or else it will turn into another Kashmere, South Lebannon, or Eastern Libya a la 1970’s.

8- Let’s pretend that the term “civilian” makes sense in Libya on all counts, that the term “innocent” applies in some sense, that the Libyan people are ready for liberal democracy (as opposed to the rest of the Middle East and Africa which currently all manifest oppressive democracies when, in fact, they are actually democractic at all), and that we have some perfect way of telling combatants and civilians apart. Let’s further pretend that the actual mission in Libya is to protect civlians. The use of overwhelmingly powerful area effect weapons such as aerial munitions and guided missiles is not the way to protect civilians, particularly without the extensive use of close air controllers — which we refuse to deploy because that would be ground troop involvement. Air power is a sledgehammer — a broad, blunt, powerful tool hanging on the kitchen of war. We are trying to stem strawberries here — a delecate operation which doesn’t call for any hammers at all, much less one of that sort. I have great personal experience with the use and effect of air power from the perspective of someone who experiences it on the ground. The argument that we have decided to bomb Libya in order to protect civilians is precisely like saying we’re going to protect civilians in a given city by shelling it with artillery. Because it is impossible to engage in warfare to protect civilians without your own actions contributing to further civilian casualties (outside of an extreme circumstance like the Holocaust) the whole concept of the operation is flawed. Without invading (which would be a different sort of humanitarian disaster anyway) we simply can’t do anything good for civil Libyan society. That requires colonization, but that is a terribly impolitic word in this era, and this particular war is all about popular politics.

9- Even though the idea that America got involved in Iraq “because of oil” is a flimsy myth worthy of debunking on Snopes, the Americans moving on another energy-rich Muslim nation just looks bad. Appearances are all that matters here, and on that level this war is actually about France demonstrating to Germany that it can be the one in the EU to carry the stick if Germany is the one to carry the carrot (or checkbook). The Americans don’t have a horse in this race. The American President also has no defined a foreign policy at all and absolutely refuses to listen to his (much wiser) Secretaries of State and Defense on these issues. He has simply gotten us involved for the sake of saying we’re involved, which is almost always the wrong reason to be doing something.

Available information is always imperfect and it is a leader’s job to be resolute and make decisions in a timely manner. That must be understood and clear. It also must be understood and clear that while campaigning is a highly emotional process, the actual weidling of state power is a fundamentally cold and pragmatic job. But it is important for senior leaders to remember that making snap decisions in an absence of information and defending emotional positions is a very different thing from actually being decisive. The ambiguity of real situations and the inability of anyone to actually foresee all events and outcomes makes decision making difficult. That is why it is so critical that any leader like an American President (or even a bank president, for that matter) have a basic policy outline to follow. Not having one is driving Obama’s presidency into the ground one obvious mistake at a time.

2 thoughts on “Libya: Some reasons why America’s best play would have been to stay out of it

  1. Ok, so let me get this straight.

    Plausible threat, possibly proven wrong.
    Severe dictator actually killing innocent civilians (civilians that we can actually paint as civilians).
    Iraqi civilians like us.
    Congressional approval.
    UN disapproves.

    No way in hell a threat to America ever, proven right.
    Severe dictator, but no actual civilians. Basically a country full of Mob-like tribal warriors. No one can be painted as civilian.
    They’ll all hate us no matter what we do.
    Did not even seek congressional approval.
    UN approves.

    So I’m sitting here wondering why Bush is a “war criminal” and Obama “must know what he’s doing”, as a common commenting sentiment, is logical in any way.

    If Libya wasn’t worse for the American public (we have NOTHING TO GAIN as opposed to Iraq where we could gain some tactical ground in Afghanistan/Iran/etc.), it certainly isn’t any better compared to Iraq.

  2. You accurately summed things up.

    The mass media plays a large role in framing the way ordinary citizens perceive events. Normal people don’t have the time or inclination to examine events in detail — they have jobs and families, after all — so they make the decision to take their geopolitics in through a straw, despite usually proclaiming a high level of interest in such things. The mass media is, however, generally run by people who have very concrete ideas about what the world should look like after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately those ideas were wrong.

    Without getting into much depth, it is useful (and a bit frightening) to recall that the senior editors and board members of large media organizations who are in the power phase of their lives today (usually men, usually white, usually college educated, and usually 50 – 70 years old) come from a generation of Americans who skipped the Vietnam War by staying in college and incidentally breathing the air of the anti-war counterculture environment that existed then. These experiences shaped a lot of their world view at a critical time in their lives when they were most impressionable and looking for a way to make their own conscious stamp on the society their parents created. Their parents were from the generation of WWII and Korean War sacrifice, and were in turn the power generation that led the Vietnam War that their childrens’ generation was so against.

    Anyway, such perceptions can be interpreted as cyclical on the social level… and I think that view is somewhat validated when we look at the difference between how most of the media-driven public views Bush and Obama, and how the new generation of young Americans who have been to war recently view them. I wrote a bit about this here, if you’re interested.

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