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Meanwhile, in Libya…


The rebel situation continues to deteriorate:

On Saturday morning, pro-Qaddafi troops launched an assault on Misrata (Misurata), the city of some 600,000 due east of the capital of Tripoli, which has been in rebel hands for weeks. In the wake of government victories at Zawiya and Ra’s Lanuf, it is clear that the pro-Qaddafi military is hoping to parlay its momentum into complete control of the coast from the Tunisian border all the way to the eastern front, now at Uqail.

Qaddafi loyalists finally took the downtown square of Zawiya on Friday. The city is half an hour to the west of the capital, Tripoli, and was the last major stronghold of the rebels on the Mediterranean coast to the west. Reports indicate a massacre of the rebels, with the large mosque having been destroyed (it is customary for dissidents to take refuge in mosques, which traditionally were considered off-limits to violence), and rumors of bodies bull-dozed away.

Government forces also pushed rebels out of the eastern refinery town of Ra’s Lanuf to its east at Uqail.

The Arab League is calling for UN intervention in the form of a no fly zone:

Despite losses on the ground, the rebels won a key battle at the Arab League during crisis talks in Cairo on Saturday. It came out in support of plans to impose a no-fly zone over Libya…

The 22-member league also agreed to contact the rebels’ provisional national council, a move welcomed by the US and Britain.  Arab foreign ministers urged the United Nations Security Council ”to assume its responsibilities in the face of the deteriorating situation in Libya and take the necessary measures to impose an air exclusion zone for Libyan warplanes”.

The decision was adopted by nine of the 11 foreign ministers attending the meeting at the league’s Cairo headquarters, from which Libya was excluded. Algeria and Syria voted against the move.  The pan-Arab organisation also announced its recognition of the transitional national council set up by the rebels in their eastern stronghold of Benghazi.

US forces continue to accumulate in the Mediterranean.  I remain unconvinced by the case for intervention, although obviously if it happens the more multilateral the better. I suspect at this point that the rebels will require more than simply a no fly zone in order to prevail; even shipments of food and military equipment may not cut it.  At the same time, prospects for Libya following a notional Gaddafi victory are really quite grim, especially given the large number of defections from the state that accompanied the first demonstrations.

…I suppose I should expand a bit, based on some of the comments below. As Mojo suggests, there’s not a lot of evidence right now that Gaddafi’s ability to use airpower is decisive, as his loyalists seem to have material and organizational advantages beyond airpower, although preventing the use of helicopters would probably help more than stopping the fixed wing bombing. If the US really wanted to overturn Gaddafi, something along the lines of the Afghan Model would probably work. This would involve using Libyan rebel forces to support and screen US SOF while applying air and sea precision strike. I suspect that the military and political effect of such operations would be dramatic and decisive. However, that would still leave a large number of strategic and grand strategic questions unanswered. On the former, these include but are not limited to:

  • Who shall we install in Tripoli?
  • How much should we support the new government against pro-Gaddafi insurgents?
  • What shall we do if the new government decides to settle scores in a brutal fashion?

On the grand strategic level, the questions include:

  • Does the US need to intervene in every civil war everywhere, even if neighbors are very supportive of a particularly faction?
  • How will another US military intervention in an Islamic country play?

I suspect that an inability to answer these questions satisfactorily is driving the policy ambiguity in Washington and in Europe.

… A couple people in comments wonder why the United States would have to decide “Who shall we install in Tripoli?”  The answer doesn’t depend on the point “Well, because we’re imperalists,” although of course that can be part of the answer. As there is no unified opposition, in any military cooperation with the rebels, the United States would have to find particular rebel leaders and factions to work with.  Working with them (even to the extent that we hand over the keys of Tripoli) is tantamount to deciding who gets Tripoli in the end; by necessity the people we decide to engage with will have a tremendous advantage in any post-Gaddafi struggle for power.  We can’t throw open the gates of Libya, then “let the Libyans decide for themselves;” the very act of throwing open the gates requires intervention that will work to the benefit of certain actors, thus necessitating the question “Who shall we install in Tripoli?”

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  • If they Arab League wants a no-fly zone, I think they should be the ones to enforce it. What have we been selling all those fighter planes to Saudi Arabia for, anyway?

    • The Saudis are far too busy protecting aristocrats in Bahrain to look after dirty little democratists in Libya. Remember the Saudis have every interest in the Libyan people getting crushed and slaughtered: It makes their own tyranny a little bit safer.

  • I’ve been trying to open a debate in British liberal-left circles on whether or not a NFZ is the best use of resources, but the responses were somewhat disappointing. For example, people blaming Obama for inaction compared to British resolve, but not pointing out that the British contribution to a NFZ would be almost zero.

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  • Good point about the defections – if Qaddafi wins the human rights situation could get even worse than it is now.

    Any thoughts on how bad that would have to get for more decisive intervention? Or if that intervention is plausible under any circumstances?

  • Mojo

    The problem has always been that, in this aituation, a no fly zone wouldn’t have an appreciable effect on the outcome as Libya’s air forces are small and ineffective. Anything short of extensive offensive air support, a complete embargo on loyalist areas and shipments of weapons and ammo to the rebels still leaves Qaddafi with better than even odds of winning.

    • Robert Farley

      Right. There’s a good case for an Afghan Model intervention in an operational sense; SOF screened by Libyan rebel forces with support of precision air and sea strike could probably turn the tide. But both the strategic (who do you turn power over to after you win, and what about an insurgency) and grand strategic (does the US have to intervene in every civil war everywhere) logics are still lacking.

      • joe from Lowell

        Strategic: who do you turn power over to after you win?

        We don’t “turn power over” to anyone. I don’t think anyone is talking about an intervention sufficient to put the power to determine who runs Libya in our hands. Intervention of any sort would, however, give us some influence with, some good feelings from, whatever new government comes to power, and we could utilize that influence to encourage the new government to respect democracy, human rights, and international norms, whoever ends up in charge.

        Grand Strategic: does the US have to intervene in every civil war everywhere?

        No. We don’t “have to” intervene in any civil wars anywhere. Such intervention is entirely at our discretion, and will remain optional whether we back the rebels in Libya or not.

        Personally, I think the mindset that doesn’t recognize the difference, in terms of self-determination and imperialism, between intervening to overall a stable, undisputed government and install the government we choose (like in Iraq), and intervening on behalf of one side in a civil war that will, if successful, install the government they choose (like the French in our War of Independence, which certainly didn’t install the French monarchy’s ideal government), is missing one of the most important doctrines to come out of anti-imperialist thought.

        • Joe

          In reality, we do have a significant influence on who gets power, including who we choose to provide legitimacy and aid. Our intervention will help some over others and the end of the intervention will in some fashion involve interaction with one side over the other as well.

          It would be nice if the U.S. simply supported “democratic legitimacy” or something, but that’s not really how we roll these days. We continue to have the “mindset” (as you say), so your approach is more idealistic than actual under current policy.

    • joe from Lowell

      Indeed. We’re on the bus or we’re off the bus.

  • DrDick

    This has all the hallmarks of a lose-lose proposition. If Qaddafi wins, as seems likely right now without intervention, we have a human rights debacle and he clamps down even harder. If the West intervenes, it would likley produce a backlash (much as we have seen in Afghanistan) which could either shore up support for Qaddafi or someone just as bad.

    • joe from Lowell

      If the West intervenes, it would likley produce a backlash…

      From the rebels begging us to intervene?

      I understand your concern, but the Libyan opposition’s desires would seem to be a better gauge of the Libyan public’s opinion than assumptions based on abstract doctrines about “intervention” and apply them without regard to specific circumstances.

      • DocAmazing

        If our assistance to the rebels were done with a very, very light touch, and did not involve overkill, or dictating to the locals how they should run things, or oil company guys sizing up their latest presumed acquistions, then maybe–maybe–we could intrude into the internal affairs of a North African nation that we have bombed in the past and be seen as helpful.

        What are the odds that any of those conditions will be met? Remember, this is largely the same military that Li’l George Bush invaded Iraq with.

        • DivGuy

          And the same presidency that escalated the war in Afghanistan.

          I trust Barack Obama’s presidency to be a much more competent neo-imperialist power, with a not-completely-insane faith in its own potency, but I think expecting the US to suddenly stop behaving like an imperialist power is pure wishcasting.

  • Joe

    “Who shall we install in Tripoli?”

    A honest statement and underlining a core problem. What right (I know, so naive) do we have to “install” people? I thought we left such monarchical conceits back in 1776. What a morass that has led to over the years.

    I think Wes Clark’s op-ed (h/t Glenn Greenwald) is helpful in balancing things out here from a realist perspective.

    • joe from Lowell

      Who says we’d have to install anybody? Most of the country of Libya is backing the military actions against the regime. This isn’t Iraq, where the “opposition” was “us,” and we actually told anti-Saddam militias who offered to join forces with us that we’d shoot them if we saw them on the battlefield. In a situation where there is no internal opposition involved in the overthrow, just a foreign intervener, that foreign country will be the one that installs the new government.

      But why would intervening with air support and material support and intelligence to help an already-existing rebellion that’s doing all the fighting itself requires us to install the new government? If they win, I’m sure they’ll be installing a government all by themselves.

      • DivGuy

        This isn’t Iraq, where the “opposition” was “us,” and we actually told anti-Saddam militias who offered to join forces with us that we’d shoot them if we saw them on the battlefield.

        Right, this is Afghanistan, where the opposition is us and loosely confederated rebels who will immediately be looking to play the much more powerful American / allied / NATO forces for their own advantage. More importantly, this is Afghanistan, where the regime has significant support among the population and where loyalists are highly likely to continue fighting a localized guerrilla war even once the big cities fall.

        Further, your argument that “we shouldn’t install anyone” seems to run along similar lines to flawed and failed arguments for the Iraq War. The Tom Friedman line was that this war would have to be carefully planned, executed with a long rebuilding process in mind. Obviously that was never going to be the case, so why would you support a war in which you believed certain conditions were necessary for it to be justly fought, and you knew those conditions would not be met by the administration that would be administering the war?

        In this case, the idea of Western forces toppling a government and then just leaving without installing favorites in key places – while there’s a good case it would be the best course of actions – is something that the US has never done in its entire history. Neither have any of the European nations that might assist in the effort. You talk about the lessons of anti-imperialism, but I think one of the key lessons is that imperialist powers rarely act like anything other than imperialist powers. Trusting the US to do this exactly right makes no sense at all to me.

        • Joe

          I share these basic sentiments.

        • DrDick

          That pretty much lays out my position as well.

      • Joe

        I responded above but will again briefly if somewhat redundantly.

        We don’t “have” to, but that is how we repeatedly have done things. In Egypt, e.g., it was reported we had a favored replacement. Not a good thing in my mind, but it’s what happened.

        We will have to determine when to stop intervening. It is quite possible without one strong leader, the country will be divided up to warring factions. It is unclear that the eventual winner will not be repressive in some fashion too. Who will the U.S. recognize in this situation?

        Will the U.S. want to fight side by side with such a group? More can be said, but I will leave it there.

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  • Shashank Joshi of RUSI has posted an interesting take on what’s going on right now, concluding it’s not so grim for the rebels in the East.

  • scanner

    If Qaddafi wins this war, he’ll be severely annoyed with those who tried to overthrow him and the bloodbath that will follow will make his bombing of civilians and shooting peaceful protesters look… like a walk in the park?
    And NATO is willing to let this happen?.
    Just sayin’!

    • Some Guy

      I didn’t know Libya was a NATO country we are obligated to defend.

      And I’m not sure where we’re required to spend trillions of dollars on anther slogging insurgent/militia quagmire for two decades.

      • Malacylpse

        They will greet us as liberators, or something, this time.

    • Ed

      And NATO is willing to let this happen?
      Just sayin’!

      Apparently so.

      From the rebels begging us to intervene?

      No worries. We are unlikely to be hearing from any of them in the future at any rate.

  • wengler

    Frankly, revolutionary armies should be pouring across the Tunisian and Egyptian frontiers to dispossess the dictator and liberate his people.

    But this isn’t happening.

    Why? Well maybe the whole narrative on these middle east uprisings is wrong.

    In my Congressional district here in Illinois, we had a real embarrassment of a representative hold onto his seat for decades. Most of the time he was drunk off his ass and he didn’t even bother to show up to vote. In 2002 a corporate Democrat beat him coincidentally right before he was slated to get the chairmanship of Ways and Means.

    These old autocrats of the Middle East are more or less their people’s Phil Crane. These coups need to turn truly revolutionary or all of them will fail against the gravitational force of the old regime.

    • bob mcmanus

      Exactly. Saudi Arabia sending troops into Bahrain today, and the US saying ok fine democracy takes long time who are these protesters anyway stability stability.

      Farley understands very well that we have already “taken sides” all over the world, favoring oligarchy over the people, arms, training, economic and military aid, admission to the globalist economy. Qaddafi was already in.

      Farley wants to stay out of those civil wars only when democracy and the people have a chance.

  • witless chum

    If the Arab League wants a no-fly zone, couldn’t the Egyptians provide one?

    At least per wiki, they have 220 F-16s, plus some older planes. Now, having planes and the capability to use them well are two different things, but putting some F-16s in the air right across the border to cover the rebels in Eastern Libya ought to be doable.

    A token no-fly zone by the Arab League would also be politically helpful to the rebels as far as convincing people it was safe to switch sides.

    I get that the Egyptian government isn’t up for trouble right now, but it seems like enforcing an Arab League mandate would be an easy sell across the board.

  • chris

    How much should we support the new government against pro-Gaddafi insurgents?

    How much coherence does the pro-Gaddafi faction have outside of Gaddafi? That is to say, if he were killed, or captured and sent to the Hague to be tried for crimes against humanity, would the “pro-Gaddafi” forces remain coherent?

    For that matter, I guess you could ask the same about the anti-Gaddafi forces. At this point they might not agree on much except “Down with Gaddafi”.

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