Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Why the US and its friends should stay out of Libya

Nine good reasons why the United States, Britain, NATO and everyone else should resist any impulse to intervene in the Libyan civil war, even through imposing a no-fly zone to stop the Libyan air force bombing rebel positions:
    1. If the rebels win, the next rulers will be vulnerable for the rest of their political lives to accusations that they came to power through foreign arms. Just look at Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, despite numerous elections over seven years and the reduced presence of US forces, the protest movement can still credibly claim that it is opposing a government of occupation. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai still controls only a small part of the country and the Taliban draw much of their support from the perception that he was installed by foreign forces.
    2. Britain and the United States cannot know for certain that military intervention has majority support within Libya. True, some Libyan rebels and the council in Benghazi say they favour a no-fly zone but no one has any idea how representative they are of the population as a whole. Military intervention will give credence to Muammar Gaddafi's argument that his supporters are fighting to preserve Libyan sovereignty from outsiders, and could persuade some Libyans who are now undecided to throw in their lot with the colonel. Libya had a long and bitter experience with Italian colonialism: foreign intervention will remind them of that experience.
    3. Military intervention in  Libya will strengthen the position of other autocratic leaders throughout the Arab world, in Saudi Arabia for example, by reframing the conflict between the autocrats and the various protest movements as one between patriots and imperalist intruders. The Egyptians who overthrew President Hosni Mubarak last month, for example, appear to be overwhelmingly opposed to intervention, however much they would like to see Gaddafi overthrown.
    4. If a no-fly zone fails to achieve the objective (presumably enabling the rebels to win), the intervening powers will find themselves compelled to escalate the level of intervention. They could easily be drawn into actions such as bombing the Bab al-Aziziah barracks and other strategic locations from the sea or by air. If the conflict is protracted, they will end as full participants and will share responsibility for the outcome, possibly to the extent of helping to choose the post-conflict government. That would completely contradict the logic of the Arab uprisings, which in several cases reflect an indigenous revolt against rulers who gave the interests of outsiders precedence over the interest of their own citizens.
    5. Gaddafi can be defeated from within if enough Libyans defect and enough of his military units refuse to fight. Many have already defected and his armed forces are in serious disarray. No tyrant can survive without active supporters. In the end the conflict in Libya should be decided on the basis of what individual Libyans decide is best for themselves and their country. Of course, defecting can be fraught with risks. Some Libyans will not have the courage to do so and others might be executed if they make the attempt. That is a price that Libyans will have to pay for freedom, as did many hundreds of Egyptians.
    6. Military intervention by the United States and Britain would be transparently opportunistic. The governments of these same countries did their best in the mid-2000s to reach out to Gaddafi and his family, even to the extent of exaggerating the concessions he made on weapons of mass destruction, mainly so that their oil companies would have access to Libyan oilfields and so that their other companies could sell goods and services to the Libyans. Their sudden enthusiasm for overthrowing Gaddafi appears to be a response to domestic public opinion, driven by reports of heavy civilian casualties in the conflict. But the conflict has since evolved into a traditional civil war between Gaddafi's military units and armed rebels who have seized arms and ammunition from government depots. There is little evidence that government forces are now deliberately targeting civilians, rather than fighting against rebels operating in populated areas.
    7. There is no basis in international law for any foreign intevention without approval by the United Nations Security Council, which the United States, Britain and France seem unlikely to obtain. The world has had enough of 'coalitions of the willing' and unilateral military actions based on spurious legal grounds.
    8. Foreign intervention would play into the hands of jihadi groups such as Al Qaeda and restore some of the influence they lost when Egyptians and Tunisians proved that political action can bring down unpopular leaders. Any foreign forces on Libyan soil would probably end up as targets for such jihadi groups, as in Iraq, even if such groups do not exist inside Libya at the moment. 
    9. If a humanitarian crisis develops, such as severe food shortages or a complete breakdown in medical services for the casualties, the civilian agencies of the United Nations and the ICRC could step in without military intervention, as they have done in innumerable civil wars over many years.


  1. Jonathan, thanks for enumerating many of the solid reasons against military intervention in Libya. On several of your points I'd overlay another factor: incompetence. Even if intervention somehow looked attractive on paper, the US political-military leadership (who certainly would be intimately involved in any military action) has given us little reason to believe they could succeed in such a mission. I mean, I know that the American leadership has demonstrated stellar insight into the political dynamics of the region /and/ the two ongoing foreign wars have been conceived & executed with glistening wisdom, but…

  2. I thought your argument very interesting and informative,however, appears your entire argument is based on the assumption that the US does not have anythign at risk. If the United States doesn't help out in the Libyan civil war they will lose Libyia's support and the support of many other countries. Right now everyone thinks we support dictatorships due to the mass amounts of money given to Hosni Mubarak. It will come to a point that US will need to intervene and clear their name.