The Libyan Intervention and the Flawed Alternatives

It has been roughly 90 days since the Libyan intervention began, and roughly 89 that it has been criticized for being a demonstration of strategic and operational incompetence. It has also been used as proof of the demise of everything from U.S. leadership to Europe’s expeditionary capabilities to NATO’s viability as an alliance.

There’s something very familiar to me about this kind of over-the-top reaction: I recognize it as my own following every U.S. intervention of the past 20 years. There is perhaps nothing more maddening than watching one’s country engage in a war that one does not believe in. The fact that this intervention was undertaken with no congressional — that is, popular — oversight only exacerbates the visceral sense of frustration and powerlessness (even if I agree with the Obama administration that the current U.S. role no longer rises to the constitutional threshold of war powers).

So I don’t mean to belittle the criticism so much as to put it in perspective. Indeed, I admit to having misgivings about my initial support for the operation, and in retrospect I’m not convinced it wasn’t a mistake driven by the hopeful fervor awakened by the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

But it’s worth noting that for all its flaws, and despite being thrown together on the fly and largely improvised since then, the Libyan intervention has, in combination with international economic and political pressure, dramatically weakened the Gadhafi regime and its ability to attack the rebels in the east as well as the Libyan popular opposition in general. It has done so at a cost that has so far not been prohibitive. And I suspect it will very probably end in Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster, with a lot of recent signs suggesting that might happen sooner rather than later.

After that, though, as critics have also pointed out, the hard part — political reconciliation, reconstruction and development — will begin. That’s the same hard part that is currently beginning in Côte d’Ivoire and south Sudan, as well as in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. It’s also the same hard part that is long overdue in Israel-Palestine, Cyprus, Kashmir and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The point being, the hard part is always there, whether we force the issue and address it head on or leave it to either fester or flare up in the future. Libya, like all the others, has figured on the global list of deferred maintenance for quite some time, even if Gadhafi’s clownish viciousness has obscured that fact. It’s an understandable reaction, in the depths of an economic downturn and in the midst of dramatic shifts in the geopolitical balance of power, for the U.S. and the West to simply shrug and say, That’s not our responsibility.

But if not us, who? What kind of global order and arrangement, not only among states, but among peoples, are we hoping to usher in?

It seems increasingly clear that, in a best-case scenario, what lies ahead is an era of regional security architectures shored up by a global condominium of powers willing to provide global security guarantees. But so far the regional security mechanisms are not in place, and the global condominium is not ready to inherit the role currently played, for better and for worse, by the U.S.: Europe and Russia are unwilling for political reasons, and China for temperamental ones.

So it’s hard to see how we get from here to there without a conflict like Libya as a wake-up call signaling that we are indeed in a transitional period and that what comes next is far from certain.

It could be that the post-Cold War global order has reached its high-water mark, and that we’re simply in for an extended period of local conflagrations and regional disruptions for which the international community will have no response other than to sit on the sidelines and wait for the bloodletting to subside. If that seems familiar, it’s because we already tried it in the mid-1990s.

Looking back at that time, I was wrong to oppose the U.S. involvement in the Balkans, an opposition based on moral absolutism and a skepticism about the utility of military force. By contrast, much of the current opposition to the Libyan intervention, and humanitarian interventions in general, has been based on a more realist calculation of national interest. But as I mentioned prior to the Libya intervention, I still haven’t seen an alternative approach that doesn’t consist of returning to what was clearly a flawed posture then, and remains one now.