Fighting Over Libya

The course of this magazine’s gestation has coincided with transformative political developments in the North Africa and the Middle East. We write at a time when the extent of these changes are still being shaped by fighting among protestors, armed rebels, and the odious security forces of authoritarian regimes clinging to power. Conflict has become particularly intense in Libya, where Western forces, driven by French cheerleading but ultimately backed by American bombs, have recently intervened.

How the US describes its involvement in Libya—what was recently called a “time-limited, scope-limited military action”—has itself been, to use another term recently put forth, in “kinetic” flux. To many, these linguistic acrobatics to dodge the word ‘war’ or any hint of lengthy engagement suggest incoherence or an embarrassing confidence in the power of jargon to conceal that fact. Some military officials, and particularly Secretary Gates, have been remarkably candid about the ambiguity of our long-term goals. Americans are left to sort through a kaleidoscope of potential reasons for intervention—averting a massacre in Benghazi, knocking out the Libyan air force, preventing a total defeat of the rebels, helping the rebels defeat Qaddafi, or deposing him.

Yet there is something oddly reassuring about the difficulty of characterizing American involvement in Libya. By refusing to label the situation a ‘war’, the US has refrained from a commitment to ‘win’ anything. In lieu of overdetermining the end goal, the Obama Administration has tried to present an adaptive logic for the conflict: preventing outrageous violations of human rights without committing American soldiers to the conclusion of a complex and evolving civil war. It is a theory about winning particular battles but not fighting wars.

This impulse is pitted against the inexorable logic of intervention that makes it easy to get into a fight but hard to get out of one. Interventions, like all military actions, have a way of eventually demanding decisive victories: the search for victory in battle evolves into fighting for one in war. So if matters in Libya become more complex—if victory becomes a condition for exit—the kaleidoscope of goals looms large. It reminds Americans that they do not know precisely what constitutes a victory. Furthermore, to the extent that US involvement quietly expands from protecting civilians to saving armed rebels from defeat, the Obama Administration risks undermining their ability to muster international consensus in the future for intervention to protect the innocent.

There is already some indication that the US has gone beyond any of its stated humanitarian goals. Reports of a CIA presence on the ground even before intervention partly belie the stated humanitarian grounds for involvement. If victory does mean the defeat of Qaddafi, it looks increasingly certain that the rebels will not be able to achieve it alone. They are a ragtag team, badly outnumbered and outgunned by Qaddafi. Alarmingly, the rebels are drawn from a population that supplied many foreign fighters against US forces in Iraq, and there is a small but substantial jihadist movement among their ranks. Of even greater concern than the current identity of the rebels is the daunting question of which rebels will assume leadership and how they will be shaped by their struggle. Will they turn out to be friends or foes, contributing or detracting from Western attempts to stomp out terrorism around the world?

Even if the Allies can successfully enforce a no-fly zone and prevent the rebels from being overrun, it is unclear where that leaves the US; a stalemate is not a real solution. In the best case, the display of Western intransigence may change the calculus in Tripoli, with Qaddafi’s sons and the rebels perhaps brokering a transitional government to ensure short-term peace and set the stage for democracy. In that case, the US very likely would have to take some responsibility for the development of institutions within the nascent state, and it is difficult to imagine such a project as a “short-term” endeavor.

Increasingly, however, it seems that outside involvement in Libya has only worsened the potential outcomes of the conflict. To the extent that US involvement was directed to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, it seems justified, even imperative. However, the evidence for that fear rests a little too heavily on White House and State Department pronouncements invoking the specter of another Srebrenica. That Qaddafi was capable of such evil is indisputable—if anything, his costumed mania and outlandish comments to Western media have obscured his malevolent influence on a bevy of African states through his oil-funded support of their murderous despots. But there are many of what Samantha Power refers to as “problems from hell,” and they often tempt well-meaning interventionists into making them worse.

With fighting ongoing, it is right to hope for success. In this case, success is a far cry from victory. It is instead something more specific and limited: to both avert a major humanitarian crisis and to avoid a major American troop commitment. The hope is to avoid the worst. We hope that goes best.