Liberal interventionists and their neoconservative twins on both sides of the Atlantic were jubilant as Libyan rebels took Tripoli. From now on, “The right question for the United States and its allies isn’t whether to help oppressed people fight for freedom, it’s when,” declared the Washington Post on August 24. The answer to that question is right now, opined former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who wishes to effect regime change in Syria. According to Lord David Owen, former British foreign secretary, “We have proved in Libya that intervention can still work,” and a precedent for the future is now set. “Who, today, does not thrill to the spectacle of freedom in Tripoli?” Fouad Ajami enthused in the Wall Street Journal.
The spectacle in the streets of Tripoli was no more thrilling than that of young men brandishing Kalashnikovs, flashing V-signs, and smashing kitschy statues anywhere else in the world; and thrill is a poor substitute for policy. As the dust settles, the fruits of the Libyan intervention are likely to prove detrimental to the American interest and harmful to regional stability. As Afghanistan and Iraq indicate, it is far easier to defeat a regime in the field than it is to stabilize a country and make it governable in accordance with the wishes of a distant intervening power. The claim of “success” in Libya needs to be met with the question that resonated with the French in the summer of 1940: Pour qui? Pour quoi?
Like the 1999 Kosovo war (to stop a nonexistent genocide) and the 2003 Iraq war (to remove nonexistent weapons of mass destruction), the Libyan operation was an exercise in premeditated mendacity. The justification for intervention has been the claim that government forces were about to carry out a massacre of civilians in Benghazi, but subsequent reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have cast doubt on various atrocity stories produced to justify the NATO bombing. Systematic disinformation and atrocity management are by now an integral part of U.S.-led interventions, however, and the media played on cue. The quality of mainstream-media analysis of the Libyan conflict has been worthy of Pravda 30 years ago, analyzing Brezhnev’s policy in Afghanistan. It has not occurred to a single New York Times or Washington Post editorialist that the way to save civilian lives is to urge a cease-fire followed by an attempt to reach a negotiated settlement.
In reality the United States, Britain, and France had encouraged, armed, and financed the rebellion from its earliest stages. Having groomed them, they provided rebels 20,000 air sorties over the course of 150 days and beefed up their ranks—in clear violation of their mandate—with as-yet-unknown numbers of British and French special forces. In the end it was NATO that brought down Qaddafi, notably by intensifying bombing raids in the first three weeks of August, with the rebels playing an auxiliary role on the ground not dissimilar to that of the Afghan Northern Alliance in the fall of 2001. NATO’s role as a tool for aggressive out-of-area operations, unconnected with its member-states’ defense requirements and unimaginable under NATO’s 1949 charter, has been further cemented, to the detriment of restraint and realism.
Regime change has been the three Western powers’ objective all along, and the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing limited action for supposedly humanitarian goals was misused accordingly. It remains unclear why Russia and China abstained from the vote last March. The Russians may have expected a protracted rise in oil prices, the Chinese may have hoped for a long quagmire, and both were fairly indifferent to the fate of the erratic Libyan dictator. It is certain that they will not provide another “Responsibility to Protect” authorization any time soon, however, least of all vis-à-vis Syria. That will not make much difference to the advocates of interventionism, who will simply bypass the United Nations if it proves uncooperative to the application of David Owen’s “precedent for the future,” just as President Barack Obama has bypassed the requirement for congressional authorization by making the preposterous claim that the United States was engaged in “non-hostile action” in Libya.
After the U.S. Army deposed Saddam, Iraq was the scene of a protracted vendetta and simultaneous bloody struggle for power, which the occupying “Coalition” forces were unable and unwilling to prevent. The absence of such forces on the ground in Libya means that the rebels will be even freer to settle their political, personal, and tribal scores with Qaddafi’s supporters as they deem fit—which will be a nasty business—and to try to “disarm” one another, which may turn into a bloodbath in its own right. At the time of this writing, the signs are ominous. On August 26, Amnesty International accused the rebels of shooting scores of unarmed prisoners and mistreating migrant workers, despite repeated promises by the Transitional National Council that its forces would not repeat the violations of the former regime. On the same day foreign reporters came across a former government-forces camp in central Tripoli where pro-regime fighters were found massacred, including a number who were bound before execution. Dozens more bodies of pro-Qaddafi soldiers were found in a field hospital. On such form, many ordinary Libyans with no commitment to either side may soon become nostalgic for Qaddafi, just as their Iraqi counterparts turned wistful only months after Saddam’s fall for the predictable stability of his rule.
It is an even bet that the eventual winners will be Cyrenaica’s jihadists of various hues—the best armed and organized rebel faction by far—who are different in style but not in substance from the Shi’ite clerics who are now in charge in Baghdad. An indication of what the new regime has in store for the country is provided by the new Libyan constitution, drafted by the Transitional National Council some weeks before Qaddafi’s departure and founded on Islamic law. The first general provision of the draft constitution reads, “Islam is the Religion of the State and the principal source of legislation is Islamic jurisprudence.” Ordinary Libyans may not be the only ones to conclude that they would be better off with Qaddafi, if the overall winners turn out to be local affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the developing power struggle among rebel factions it is possible that there will be no clear winner for a long time. The disintegration of the Libyan state, the revival of core tribal loyalties, and the ineffectiveness of the Transitional National Council have the potential to turn Libya into a more sophisticated version of Somalia. The tribes—starting with those loyal to the fallen dictator—are already arming themselves and moving away from the central state. A Hobbesian free-for-all would turn Libya into a hotbed of regional instability and a safe haven for the assorted Fourth Generation Warriors such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Qaddafi had stockpiled 20,000 man-portable anti-aircraft weapons, which could be used by terrorists to shoot down passenger aircraft. Many of these weapons are unaccountably missing, with Andrew J. Shapiro, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, admitting that this is “one of the things that keep me up at night.”
If Libya unravels, the United States and her European allies would be under pressure to intervene to impose order. A long and costly exercise in nation-rebuilding remains a possibility. As Seumas Milne has noted in the Guardian, the British government’s refusal to rule out sending troops to take part in a “stabilization operation” is an ominous sign of where Libya may be heading; and if Libyans end up with the kind of democracy foisted on Iraq and Afghanistan, courtesy of their Western advisors, that will be no liberation at all:
There are many in the region who now hope the fall of Gaddafi will give new momentum to the stalled Arab awakening, bringing down another autocrat, perhaps in Yemen. But the risk could instead be that it sends a message that regimes can only now be despatched with the armed support of Washington, London and Paris—available in the most select circumstances. Nato’s intervention in Libya is a threat to the Arab revolution, but the forces that have been unleashed in the region won’t be turned back so easily. Many of those who have fought for power in Libya, including Islamists, clearly won’t accept the dispensation that’s been prepared for them. But only when Nato and its bagmen are forced to leave Libya can Libyans truly take control of their own country.
In the meantime, further tens of thousands of North African “asylum seekers” will land on Lampedusa, the first stop en route to the Muslim enclaves in Milan, Munich, and Malmo. Europe will be further multiculturalized, one step closer to its demographic self-annihilation.
Perhaps the most harmful consequence of our “engagement” with Libya, from the standpoint of the American interest, is the brazen manner in which Obama and his legal team have evaded the strictures of the War Powers Resolution of 1973. The White House claims not only that U.S. action in Libya is made legitimate by the United Nations, but that U.N. authorization per se makes congressional approval unnecessary. This is some light years from candidate Obama declaring in 2008 that “the President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally [sic] authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” The claim that a war involving the United States can be “legitimated” by a multinational agency—the United Nations, or NATO, or the Arab League—is legally absurd. It is also immoral and potentially treasonous. It opens the way to any number of future “engagements” that bear no relevance to American interests, security, or welfare.
Yet again NATO has intervened militarily in pursuit of a hidden agenda that had little to do with its formally stated goals and which produced results objectively detrimental to Western interests. As the country braces itself for the second half of the double-dip recession, the Balkan Syndrome of the 1990’s has been transferred to a grander, strategically more significant scene. Interesting times, indeed.