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Libya Intervention Highlights Global Security Gaps

Monday, March 28, 2011

Last week it seemed like even the intervention of U.S., British and French airpower might not be enough to enable the Libyan rebellion to regain the momentum against Libyan government forces. Now it looks like the balance has shifted in the rebels' favor, if not yet decisively so. For me, as a supporter of the intervention, that makes this week an even better moment than last to emphasize that we should not be judging the wisdom of our involvement based on the latest isolated news accounts from the front, and that it is wildly premature to assess any ultimate outcomes. This could still turn out to be a very bad idea that has been very well-realized.

Now also seems like a good moment to articulate my conviction that, in the context of any broader strategic approach to the use of American military force, the opponents of this intervention were arguing the much stronger position. Not only were the risks they identified real, those risks might still materialize. I'm thinking particularly about the danger of a long-term post-conflict stabilization period, whether in a regime-change or a partition scenario. The question of whether whoever follows Gadhafi will be a net improvement also remains relevant. I'm still convinced, however, that those risks were and remain limited ones, that they were significantly outweighed by the many potential upsides of intervention, and that inaction carried risks as well.

Nevertheless, vigilance and not triumphalism is in order on the part of those who advocated for this intervention, and a broad dialogue should now be engaged across the policy spectrum to begin applying the many lessons we have learned about post-conflict stabilization over the past 10 years, in order to reach a politically stable endgame as quickly as possible, while also minimizing costs by diffusing them as broadly as possible.

Finally, while the Libya intervention should not set a normative precedent or serve as a model for multilateral military intervention, it does reveal a number of operational realities that constrain the range of alternatives currently on offer. To begin with, there is no operational alternative to the U.S. military -- or U.S. assets placed under NATO command -- when it comes to command and control of any significant multilateral coalition. Those in France who opposed reintegration into the NATO command on the grounds that it would prevent the EU from ultimately providing such an alternative, an argument I admittedly minimized at the time, have for the time being been proven correct.* There is still a "long way home" for EU defense to become a functional alternative, through reinforced cooperation under the Lisbon Treaty between France, Britain and Poland. But the duplication necessary for that to happen is cost-prohibitive in the current budgetary climate, and for now, no combination of European capabilities could replace what we've seen in the limited operation in Libya.

The need that NATO fills with regard to coordinated trans-Atlantic politico-military action highlights a further gap that Thomas P.M. Barnett has identified with regard to China, but that needs to be addressed more generally: namely, the absence of an operational structure that is politically broad enough to integrate not only the traditional trans-Atlantic alliance, but also emerging powers. China, India and Brazil chose to sit this one out, in part due to their commitment to nonintervention. But as attractive as that doctrine might be in the aftermath of failed interventions like Iraq and Afghanistan, it will prove less rewarding in the event of a successful Libyan intervention, with all the public diplomacy payoffs that will provide for the intervening powers.

Eventually a time will come or a particular case will arrive where the emerging powers will decide they just can't stay on the sidelines of a U.N.-mandated multilateral coalition. It's easier to imagine that time arriving sooner, rather than later, for India and Brazil. And because both are democracies, it's easier to imagine that coalition being easily manageable, and conceivably placed under NATO command. China is a different story and probably a much bigger prize in terms of the cash and assets it could provide. So creating an operational structure in which Beijing can, in fact, participate will make it all the more likely that China will begin to shoulder its fair share of the global security burden as America's ability to do so declines.

For now, the idea of such a semi-permanent global security apparatus is political kryptonite, as much in Beijing as in Washington. But the constraints and challenges of the Libya intervention, on both the operational and political level, suggest that it will be necessary for creating a successor regime to the global order underwritten exclusively by American security guarantees.

*This post was revised to clarify the counterargument to France's NATO reintegration.