The Libyan operation is being quietly aborted, barely three weeks after its ill-conceived onset. There will be no mission creep, no American boots on the ground, and no arming and training of the rebel forces.
The impending stalemate is the least of all evils. It is preferable to an open-ended escalation or to an outright victory by either side. Libya will be effectively divided in two, with the boundary passing somewhere east of Brega and west of Benghazi. The Interim Transitional National Council (ITNC) will be dominated by hard-core Islamists. They already form the fighting core in eastern Libya, which is composed of former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, LIFG. Oh, yes, they have “renounced violence.” It is just as well the ITNC’s claim to represent the country as a whole will get nowhere, France’s hasty act of recognition notwithstanding. Gaddafi will continue to control a half of the oil wells, and he will be able to evade the sanctions—current and future—thanks to the sympathetic generals ruling Algeria to the west. On the other hand, three-quarters of Libya’s oil reserves are believed to be in the Sirte Basin currently controlled by rebels. Since oil accounts for more than two-thirds of of Libya’s GDP, a rebel-controlled statelet in the east may offer all kinds of rich pickings to the British and French oil companies which were the driving forces behind this intervention.
President Obama has never had his heart in this operation. The ambivalence was obvious in his bizarre description of “Odyssey Dawn” as a “time-limited, scope-limited kinetic military action” for which “our military … is being volunteered by others to carry out missions that are important not only to us, but are important internationally.” The operation will now die a quiet death, which is just as well. Only weeks ago Libya had the potential to combine the worst elements of several Western military interventions over the past decade and a half. To gain the United Nations Security Council approval on March 17, it was presented as a 1997 Iraq no-fly zone lookalike. France and Britain had always intended to escalate the operation once this limited mandate was granted, however, and proceeded to do so within days of the Resolution’s adoption. The bombing raids soon became reminiscent of NATO’s 1999 air war against Serbia, civilian targets and victims included. The parallel demand for Gaddafi’s ouster soon opened the possibility of a further escalation—specifically prohibited by the UNSC Resolution 1,973—which would have entailed outright occupation of Libya by ground troops.
The only serious combatants among the insurgents are hard-core Islamic fundamentalists from Cyrenaica, including veterans of various Jihads in Central Asia and the Balkans. This means that the “success” in this war would be hugely detrimental to the American interest. Instead of an eccentric dictator, Libya would be ruled by the likes of Hizb-ut-Tahrir Party, North Africa’s response to the Taliban. These people are most unlikely to be described by U.S. officials as “strong parters in the war on terrorism,” as Gaddafi was designated only five years ago. According to a 2008 West Point analysis of a cache of al-Qaeda records, nearly a fifth of foreign jihadists in Iraq were Libyans; on a per-capita basis, Libya provided twice as many of them as Saudi Arabia. NATO commander Adm. James Stavridis admitted that much when he told a Senate hearing that there were intelligence reports about the presence of Qaeda and Hezbollah members among the insurgents.
What next? Gaddafi needs to be given some discrete assurances that, when the dust settles, he would be left in peace if he behaves and stays below the radar screen. “Negotiating with Gaddafi” is bound to be called a defeat by those who had always intended to use the limited mandate under the UNSC Resolution 1,973 but for once they should be ignored: the fruits of their clamoring have proven too costly in American lives and treasure over the past decade. A viable exit strategy requires giving up the rhetoric of regime change.
Four lessons of Libya may be drawn by now. The first has been known for years: “humanitarian intervention” is a pernicious concept which provides the equivalent of the “Polish army attack” on the Gleiwitz radio station to a would-be aggressor. It undermines the concept of collective security and it undermines international law as a system of commonly respected norms that are binding upon all states. Its arbitrary nature is evident in the failure of its most vocal practitioners to invoke it when the violator is too powerful (e.g. North Korea subjecting its people to famine and terror), or too insignificant (various African despots, in Sudan, Congo, etc.), or considered a partner (NATO ally Turkey’s war against the Kurds in the 1980s and 90s took the lives of at least 30,000 civilians). Far from being “moral,” humanitarian intervention is inherently a tool of situational morality.
The second is that foreign interventions are easy to start and very difficult to end. They create a dynamic of their own which makes long-term planning and management impossible. Ends and means get confused. Enormous costs make “failure” unacceptable, but the definition of “success” becomes elusive. Both Iraq and Afghanistan provide telling current examples.
The third is that wars should be fought not for “ideals” but against threats to national security. All too often when no threat is present—such as Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction”—reductio ad Hitlerum is deployed. Muammar Gaddafi—eccentric, unpleasant, brutal and probably mad as he is—was not a threat to the United States. He has been no worse a dictator than several of our Third World clients. He is more reliable on Islamic extremism than our kleptocratic “allies” in Saudi Arabia. Libya’s per capita gdp and other indicators show that he has shared more of his country’s oil wealth with his people than the rulers of the Emirates, or Bahrein, or (again) Saudi Arabia. Who rules Libya may matter to delusional one-worlders like Samantha Power, to neoconservative ideologues who have never seen a war they did not like, or to oil executives, but their interests are not national interests. Their interests can be reliably assumed to be the exact opposite of the American interest.
The fourth is that with each new war started without congressional approval—let alone a formal declaration—the United States loses further vestiges of its republican identity and enhances its imperial character. His previous antiwar rhetoric notwithstanding, Obama has effectively embraced the previous Administration’s September 2001 dictum that “no statute can place any limits on the President’s determinations” because “these decisions, under our Constitution, are for the President alone to make.” They are nothing of the sort “under the Constitution,” but that did not prevent Hillary Clinton from telling the House of Representatives that “the White House would forge ahead with military action in Libya even if Congress passed a resolution constraining the mission.” Successive administrations—most notably those of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—have inured us to illegality to such an extent that its explicit flaunting is seen as normal. That is, on balance, the worst consequence of this unnecessary adventure.