What’s really at stake for the United States in Libya

This evening Pres. Obama signed an executive order blocking assets and prohibiting certain key transactions with Libya, the first major American effort to respond in a practical manner to the outrageous behavior of the Qaddafi regime. In my view, as my readers will know, this is not a moment too soon. For the past few days I've been advocating freezing of assets, various economic sanctions, travel restrictions on Libyan officials, and, with a heavy heart, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. While I know a great many people agree with me, and increasingly so, numerous friends have questioned the wisdom of any such strong response, so I feel that it's incumbent on me and others who advocate such measures to explain exactly what it is we think is in it for the United States and the rest of the international community.

The downsides of action:
Obviously, a short-term, amoral, and purely self-interested analysis would suggest that the simple answer is nothing, which helps explain the reticence of the West to respond vigorously to the incredibly violent behavior of the Libyan government and the increasingly bloodcurdling threats from Qaddafi himself. My point is that even if we are to take principles such as the Responsibility to Protect and the question of fundamental morality off the table, there are still important strategic and political reasons for getting involved vigorous and quickly. I've been very clear about the risks involved in my recent articles and blog postings, and I've tried not to shy away from the real dangers attached. These include threats to Westerners still in Libya and some Western economic interests; the possibility that Western, and especially American, engagement might be used as an excuse by the Qaddafi regime to bolster its ridiculous accusations that the uprising is a Western and/or Al Qaeda plot; the possibility that these measures may prove ineffective and ultimately might require some kind of more direct intervention (although I think that is relatively unlikely given the speed with which the regime is disintegrating); and the possibility of the fragmentation of Libya into separate zones of influence. This last prospect is especially raised by the possibility of a country-wide no-fly zone, since in other instances, most notably Iraq, that has proven the case.

What economic measures can and cannot achieve:
Moreover, I've been very straightforward about the fact that economic measures will not, in and of themselves, produce regime change, and that a no-fly zone would have limited effectiveness and not stop atrocities on the ground. However, while these measures carry certain risks and have obvious limitations, they would have certain powerful effects that shouldn't be discounted either. The freezing of assets, for example, would make it more difficult for the Qaddafi regime to continue to pay its people, particularly foreign mercenaries on whom it has by all accounts been heavily relying for the worst of its deeds. It would make life more difficult for the government, which at this stage would certainly be a good thing. It would also send an important symbolic message, and Pres. Obama is to be congratulated for his new executive order and encouraged, indeed, to go further. For sanctions to really bite, it will require the cooperation of countries like Russia and China, and that will be difficult, but may not be impossible. Public indications that the United States is working in this direction would be welcome and heartening. Even though economic sanctions take time to really bite, they would send an important signal to the Libyan government that not only domestically but internationally, the noose is tightening.

What a no-fly zone can accomplish:
A no-fly zone would have an even greater impact. It would reduce the ability of the government to try to extend its influence over the parts of the country it still controls, and make it extremely difficult for it to regain control of the apparently large areas it no longer commands. Most importantly, it would make it impossible to quickly and efficiently ferry in additional mercenaries from other parts of Africa or eastern Europe, and might help bring a quicker end to the conflict. It's true that a no-fly zone could increase the risk of fragmentation, but that risk is already there, and from what we have seen, at least rhetorically, the Libyan opposition isn't secessionist or terribly localized yet, and seems driven by nationalist rhetoric that militates against this kind of fragmentation. The real danger would come from a protracted period of instability in which the regime continued to control Tripoli and various other parts of the country, with other parts falling to local factions, tribes or, conceivably even, warlords. In other words, the danger of fragmentation is probably just as severe without a no-fly zone as with one. It emerges more due to an extended period of conflict than from the inability of the Qaddafi regime to use its air power.

The imperative to avoid ground intervention:
I understand that everyone, undoubtedly including the Libyan opposition and the people of the Arab world, have very serious reservations about any kind of direct foreign intervention on the ground, and I very much share those concerns. An international or Western presence on the ground in Libya could produce terrible downsides, raising again the specter of colonialism and creating a platform for international terrorists such as Al Qaeda or local forces to rally around various different self-interested campaigns of violence under the rubric of fighting foreign occupation. No doubt this is a contingency everyone is eager to avoid. I'd argue that strong measures short of that, including the ones I'm advocating above, would actually make such a prospect less and not more likely, even though once the Responsibility to Protect is invoked, it's logical conclusion might lead in that direction. The important thing is that this conflict not drag on, because that leads to almost all the dystopian scenarios one can paint, from extended massacres and atrocities, to fragmentation, or to the need for a very problematic and undesirable international intervention on the ground. I'm not surprised that nobody serious is talking these terms, and they shouldn't. It's far too early to consider such a measure, and it would to require the emergence of a humanitarian crisis of extraordinary proportions, far in excess of the already dreadful violence we have already seen to even begin to consider such a thing.

Broader US interests in taking a stronger stance:
The point I'm trying to emphasize, however, is that beyond these short-term, narrow practical and strategic considerations there is a broader imperative that needs to be borne in mind. The Arab world is being swept by a series of protests against the status quo, characterized by unaccountable governments that are corrupt and incompetent, leaders that have ruled for many decades and groom their children for succession, and a lack of inclusivity and transparency in governance that is simply unbearable. The United States in particular has a powerful strategic interest in not being perceived as the guardian of the status quo, addicted to a regional order that has become anathema to most of the people of the Middle East. It is very much in the American national interest to place itself, and more importantly be perceived as, on the side of the Arab peoples as they rise up to insist on reform, accountability and inclusivity. The Arab citizenry is finding its voice, and asserting its will, and the United States will have to deal with the outcome. Its ability to determine what happens is extremely limited in most parts of the Arab world, for instance in Libya. But I'd argue that the United States has a strong interest in being a part of the process of reform, in a manner that the people of the region can and will understand.

The need to side with the Arab peoples:
After an initially confused and halting reaction to the Egyptian protests, the Obama administration did get it right and sent a clear message that it was not interested in insisting on the survival of its ally, Pres. Mubarak. Nobody would consider Qaddafi a key American client or even really a friend of the United States, in spite of the fact that the Bush administration did make a deal with it to exchange its special weapons program for a degree of international rehabilitation. Standing on the sidelines and doing nothing for so many days while Libya has burned has simply not been in the American interest in my view. The new executive order is a very good step in the right direction. For understandable reasons, NATO is still saying it's not considering any kind of intervention, such as a no-fly zone, in Libya. But I think that as the conflict continues to deteriorate, and especially if Qaddafi and his regime make good on their threats to “cleanse Libya house by house” and turn Libya into “a burning hell,” economic measures will probably not be sufficient to place our country squarely on the right side of history and on the side of the Arab peoples yearning to be free (it sounds like a cliché, and it is one, but nonetheless it's apt).

A no-fly zone, as we've seen in the past, can be quickly organized and Libya is well-positioned around the whole series of NATO bases from which it could be enforced. It would be best if this were done with the backing of a UN Security Council resolution, but a broad-based international coalition need not be entirely dependent on Russian and Chinese acquiescence. I believe the Arab peoples generally, and most of the people of Libya, would welcome such a move and would see it as a very positive indication of where the United States, which is and insists on remaining the regional superpower in the Middle East, sees its role in the emerging order through which Arab citizens are trying to shake off the despotisms of the past. The political and strategic risks, which I certainly acknowledge, are hardly overwhelming, and the military risks are minimal. There are also undoubted political and strategic concerns, and I've never downplayed them, and I'm not doing that now. But I am suggesting that there are far greater and overriding political and strategic costs to being perceived as doing nothing, to giving the impression of being disinterested, relying solely on lip service, being overly attached to regional stability and the status quo at a time when people are rejecting it in a most heroic manner, and, of course, of hypocrisy.

Such accusations would be unjust and untrue, but they are already surfacing and will only grow over time. The Qaddafi regime will almost certainly not be able to survive its current crisis. Simply put, there's no way to put Humpty Dumpty back together again at this point. The loss of control so much of the country, the outrage of so many of its citizens, the defection of so many military, diplomatic and government officials, and the literally pathological performance and behavior of Qaddafi himself mean this regime has no future. The only questions are how long will it take, how much blood will be spilled, how much chaos will ensue, and what kind of order the endgame will produce. Here I do think the United States and its allies could play a role in hastening the end to the regime, which would minimize the risks of national fragmentation due to extended conflict and the emergence of extremist factions in control of certain parts of the country, both of which could be the consequences of a protracted scenario. This government is going to fall. It strongly behooves the United States to be perceived as having helped to play a positive role in bringing about its demise. Not only will that provide our country a great deal of credit in Libya and in the Arab world at large, especially among the ordinary citizens, it would also maximize the ability of the United States to deal positively with a post-Qaddafi order and to have some degree of influence in what comes next.

More importantly, it would send a clear message to the Arab peoples at large: the United States prefers transitions in which national militaries work with remnants of the old regimes and with opposition groups to create new, more equitable, democratic and transparent systems to replace existing autocracies. That process is underway in Tunisia and Egypt, and apparently is just starting in Bahrain as well. Libya is a strategically important country, but it is not a major ally of the United States. However, other important Arab states that are vulnerable to popular protests against autocracy are key allies, and the United States might find itself dealing with situations even more difficult than the one in Egypt, which resolved itself, thus far, relatively peacefully and in a more or less orderly manner. It's very important that the Arab people understand that the United States isn't willing to stand by idly, especially if they wrongly perceive it to be a reflection of an undue attachment to regional stability and preserving an unacceptable status quo, especially when the citizenry of the country is under unrestrained attack by a rogue government.

US interests in joining and helping manage transition in the Arab world:
There will be, almost certainly, many difficult challenges ahead for the United States and some of its key allies in the future as the wave of Arab reform protests proceeds. What happened in Egypt and Tunisia set the stage for what is happening in Libya, and what is also beginning to gain steam in Yemen and elsewhere. Wise strategic thinking would focus on the medium and long-term rather than the immediate, narrow interests that militate against doing anything, and would seek to maximize the American ability to deftly maneuver in the face of what are likely to be difficult transitions in other Arab states. So, just as Egypt and Tunisia were the precursors of the crisis in Libya, so too will the Libyan experience influence what happens next in other Arab countries. American policy should be clearly focused on maximizing our country's ability to deal effectively with those coming storms. Having been perceived to have played a positive role in helping to secure freedom in Libya, or at least an end to the conflict and the Qaddafi regime, is the best thing we could do at the moment to prepare a sound basis for securing our long-term interests and maintaining good relations not just with the governments, but also with the peoples, of our Arab allies.