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Tag: "libya"

The Washington Playbook

[ 323 ] March 10, 2016 |


Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile of Barack Obama’s foreign policy is enlightening, showing the president’s great personal confidence in bucking “the Washington playbook” that had dominated administrations from both parties since the Reagan years. Rejecting those who would draw lines in sand and start wars to defend American prestige–including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Biden, among many, many others–Obama instead has operated at a higher level than most of his advisors, seeking to defuse conflicts and, in his words, “not do stupid shit.” This is the post-Bush presidency we needed. Of course, Hillary Clinton is all about doing some stupid shit.

Obama’s reticence frustrated Power and others on his national-security team who had a preference for action. Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state, argued for an early and assertive response to Assad’s violence. In 2014, after she left office, Clinton told me that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” When The Atlantic published this statement, and also published Clinton’s assessment that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Obama became “rip-shit angry,” according to one of his senior advisers. The president did not understand how “Don’t do stupid shit” could be considered a controversial slogan. Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’ ” The Iraq invasion, Obama believed, should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid shit. (Clinton quickly apologized to Obama for her comments, and a Clinton spokesman announced that the two would “hug it out” on Martha’s Vineyard when they crossed paths there later.)

Given the fairly high likelihood (or at least reasonable possibility) that Power would be Clinton’s Secretary of State, we can likely expect a return to the older version of American interventionism, which will probably do harm in the world and to the U.S. Ah, if only Bernie Sanders had any articulated foreign policy at all to which we could reasonably compare this.

The transformational issue for Obama was bombing Syria, where he declared a “red line” and then didn’t bomb when Assad crossed it. But does anyone think Syria would be better off today if the U.S. bombed it to smithereens? When has that worked? When has the supposed hit to American prestige if we didn’t bomb actually manifested itself? Seems to me the hit to American prestige was starting a stupid war in Iraq that we weren’t even prepared enough for to understand the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Islam. Obama went down this road in Libya. It didn’t work. And unlike Hillary, he learned from it.

And, my God, he even has a clue about the history of America’s terrible foreign policy of the past and it influences his actions.

The president also seems to believe that sharing leadership with other countries is a way to check America’s more unruly impulses. “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris,” he explained. He consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness. “We have history,” he said. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”

Now, I certainly have my criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, especially around trade. But when was the last president with a better foreign policy? Grover Cleveland, who for all his faults was at least anti-imperialist? FDR I suppose is the better answer. But it’s been a long, long time. It may be a low bar but Obama has easily cleared it. The deals with Cuba and Iran are tremendously important and change the trajectory of the nation.


“The Roots of the Crisis”

[ 39 ] October 25, 2012 |

This is just hopelessly lazy:

To understand the roots of the crisis in Libya, after all, would mean examining how, for years, the United States helped Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and other Arab leaders hold on to power and terrorize their opponents anywhere in the world, in the name of the “war on terror.” It would mean exposing successive administrations’ rendition and torture policies, and their collusion with despotic Arab regimes to carry them out. Though many Arabs targeted by the United States remained focused exclusively on challenging the regimes in their home countries—and refused to harm civilians to achieve their aims—some came to regard the United States, its assets and civilians as legitimate targets in some circumstances.

There are surely some time periods and some leaders for which the “hold on to power and terrorize their opponents” would be an appropriate description of US policy; in the case of Libya, the US became more willing to cut Qaddafi slack after 2003, in return for cooperation on the Libyan nuclear program and for the assistance of the Libyan intelligence. For approximately the 34 years prior to the nuclear deal of 2003, US policy (pursued with uneven enthusiasm) was to support the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime. It’s entirely reasonable to complain about US willingness to cooperate with the Libyan security services after 2003, but it should bear mention that Qaddafi was rather adept at holding onto power and terrorizing his opponents anywhere in the world without any assistance from the United States. In face, active US opposition was incapable of preventing Qaddafi from undertaking these two projects. Moreover, I don’t recollect that the Nation was particularly enthusiastic about US policy towards Qaddafi prior to 2003.

It isn’t just Qaddafi; I feel like pulling my hair out every time I read that Mubarak was a US puppet/creation. There’s an element of truth to the claim, but only an element; Mubarak was the third in a line of dictators, the first two of whom had demonstrated every capacity for holding onto power even in context of active US opposition. Similarly, the United States has been more and less willing to deal with the Assads over the years (including utilizing Syrian security services), but it makes no sense whatsoever to claim that the resilience of the Assad regime is because of US assistance. Simply because the US is periodically willing to work with a particularly dictator does not indicate that the US is responsible for the survival of said dictator; it may be convenient for domestic opponents to make such an argument, but authoritarian regimes can survive with no assistance whatsoever from the United States.

Intervention and Uncertainty

[ 13 ] July 17, 2012 |

Was on the Alyona Show last night with Ali Gharib.  I had lighting issues.


[ 7 ] December 14, 2011 |

I have thoughts on the reconstruction of the Libyan armed forces:

While there is a temptation to suggest that the new Libyan government should be given as much space as possible to rebuild the Libyan armed forces, in fact Western security assistance is imperative. Libya cannot develop the capabilities it needs in the timeframe available all by itself. But Western assistance for Libya will also at times be a double-edged sword for Tripoli. Given NATO’s role in Gadhafi’s ouster, it is likely that the alliance will prioritize its interests when it comes to facilitating Libya’s military reconstruction. This could play out both in terms of contracts and in terms of general focus. Libya’s defense profile might ideally call for the purchase of low-cost Russian or Chinese equipment, but the relationship with NATO could effectively force the acquisition of higher-cost Western weapons systems. Similarly, it seems unlikely that a Libya influenced by NATO will adopt a defense profile at odds with NATO’s interests. For example, Libya’s new air defense network probably won’t be geared toward resisting air attacks from the Mediterranean. Although engagement with the international military community is important, Libya will have to take considerable care to ensure that its armed forces identify first and foremost with the Libyan people, and remain loyal to the Libyan government.

New Libyan Army

[ 5 ] November 6, 2011 |

Interesting WaPo piece on the future of the Libyan Army:

“Creating a new army is not going to be by an official statement or resolution. It has to come after a negotiation,” said Anis Sharif, a spokesman for Abdulhakim Belhadj, an Islamist seen as the dominant militia leader in Tripoli.

Reining in the militias is crucial to restoring order after the fighting between NATO-backed revolutionaries and loyalists of longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi, diplomats say. NATO officially ended its operations in Libya on Monday night, giving the country full responsibility for its own security.

Although many of the fighters have been in a celebratory mood since the war ended, several confrontations between rival militias have threatened to escalate into bloodshed — including one at Tripoli’s airport Monday.

The problem is twofold. The Libyan government requires an army for keeping internal order and for fighting remaining loyalists. However, the war didn’t last long enough to produce a cohesive, professional cadre, and there’s little model to build on from the ancien regime. Because of the heterogenous nature of the revolution, authority over the legitimate use of violence is now divided.

The dangers of this situation are obvious. A heterogenous “army,” controlled by vying factions is an invitation to renewed civil war. One of the upsides of being in the good graces of NATO is that there’s plenty of advice (often based on recent experience) available on the technical and bureaucratic aspects of putting together a national army from scratch. Unfortunately, that only goes so far; resolving the organizational issues have an important technocratic aspect, but remain essentially a political problem that needs to be solved at the level of negotiation between the major factions.

Libya, R2P, and Precedent

[ 23 ] October 25, 2011 |

Scott Horton has an interesting essay at Foreign Policy discussing the domestic and international impact of the intervention in Libya. The domestic side is mostly right; the international side, not so much:

While much of the military operations in Libya were plainly within the mandate of Resolution 1973, some aspects exceeded it. For instance, attacks fairly early in the conflict targeted command-and-control centers of the Qaddafi regime. Such steps would be routine in wartime and would plainly be authorized under the laws of armed conflict. But it’s not so clear that they were authorized by Resolution 1973, the authority of which rested on the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” (R2P): the notion, adopted by the U.N. in 2005, that intervention is justified to protect a civilian population from harm, even at the hands of its own leaders. After all, strikes were mounted against military positions far away from the attacks on civilians and with no apparent linkage to them. Moreover, as the war progressed, the posture of the fading Qaddafi regime became increasingly defensive. The final weeks of the campaign put this in sharpest perspective, as Qaddafi and his final core group of retainers withdrew to his hometown of Sirte, ultimately fleeing in a convoy that was fired upon by NATO aircraft and an American Predator drone, destroying two vehicles. Libyan authorities have denied an independent autopsy that might show conclusively the cause of Qaddafi’s death — which may have been shots fired after he surrendered and was in rebel custody — but the role played by NATO in his final moments points to the near perfect inversion of the mission. Instead of protecting civilians from attack by Qaddafi and his forces, they were attacking a fleeing and clearly finished Qaddafi.

At this point, some members of the Security Council clearly feel they got suckered. They voted for a resolution to protect the people of Benghazi from slaughter and saw their authority invoked to depose Qaddafi and install a new government. That will have consequences for future humanitarian crises. Russia and China have now blocked Security Council resolutions targeting Syria. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has made clear that Russia supports demands for reform in Syria and abhors the use of violence against demonstrators, but has been equally clear that Russia cannot risk a repeat of the Libyan example.

NATO’s operations in Libya began as a valid demonstration of the use of military force to protect civilians. But they evolved quickly into an exercise in regime change. In the wake of Libya, the Security Council is unlikely to embrace another R2P operation anytime soon. And that is bad news for the people of Damascus and Hama, as well as for advocates of the responsibility to protect.


Anyone who believed that the intervention in Libya wouldn’t involve at least an attempt to overthrow Gadhafi is either stupid or lying. With the Russians, the Chinese, and the Arab League it’s pretty obviously the latter; none of them gave a fig for Gaddafi, but they were happy to express their shock and indignation when the campaign went beyond a no fly zone. It was obvious from day one that the initiation of military operations would inevitably produce an effort to overthrow Gaddafi, although it was less certain for some time whether that effort would succeed. There was never the faintest chance that the Russians were going to allow a UNSC mandated no fly zone over Syria, a country where they have real interests, and it’s rather sad that Horton (as well as a few opportunistic neocons) believes otherwise. No criticism of the Russians intended; countries tend to defend their interests. Moreover, I’d say that there’s pretty much zero chance that the US, France, or the United Kingdom were ever going to ask for an NFZ over Syria, no matter what happened in Libya; fighting the Syrian Army and Air Force would be a much more expensive and difficult operation that defeating Gaddafi’s rabble, with the political effects much less predictable.

Moreover, what Horton seems to be asking for here is the worst of all worlds; a situation in which NATO became the militarily necessary guarantor of a Libya split between Loyalist and Rebel factions, observing a resolute neutrality regarding who was supposed to win. This interpretation of R2P would lead inevitably to the carving out of multiple statelets with minimal internal legitimacy and no ability to defend themselves. It is very difficult for me to understand how anyone would find this to be a desirable, much less an outcome that would provide a useful precedent for future action.

Dean and Libya

[ 99 ] August 25, 2011 |

This really isn’t surprising, which isn’t to say that some of the specific arguments aren’t disappointing. Two points: 1)you don’t have to be very dovish to think that the Iraq War was a horrible idea, and 2)while his aggressive tone made him kind of a liberal hero in the 2004 primaries, ideologically Dean was always a DLC centrist.

Airpower Days Re-Revisited

[ 7 ] August 24, 2011 |

My WPR column this week builds on Sunday’s Libya post:

One of the crucial military questions that emerged from the campaign involves the effectiveness of airpower. With one long ground war winding down and another in full swing, the United States and its allies are extremely reluctant to deploy ground forces. The leaders of the major intervening countries made clear that ground troops would not play a major role in the Libyan intervention, with U.S. President Barack Obama most emphatic on this point. With ground troops unavailable, the burden of military intervention falls on air and naval forces. The Libyan campaign began with a no-fly zone that quickly morphed into a large-scale campaign to support rebel efforts to destroy the Gadhafi regime. The early course of the campaign recalled the first months of the Afghanistan War, in which the United States overthrew the Taliban with airpower, special forces and Northern Alliance ground forces.


NATO Contributions in Libya

[ 7 ] August 23, 2011 |

Via Ares, a very interesting breakdown of strike sorties over Libya.  The US had a very high percentage of the early strike sorties, but as you can see that has dropped dramatically, with the French taking on a very high portion of the workload.  Of course, tallying the numbers isn’t everything; different nations use different kinds of ordnance, and contribute in other ways.  We’ll be able to put together a more complete breakdown in the next few weeks as additional data is released.

NATO discloses each day the total number of collective sorties flown in the previous 24 hours and the total of all sorties since the start of OUP, but it does not break it down into national contributions. Such national details can only be found sporadically and from different sources.  National levels of strike sorties flown have fluctuated since NATO took over military operations in Libya on March 31, 2011. The following information matches each country’s most recent number of strike sorties to the number of total strike sorties by that date.

France:  33%, approximately 2,225 strike sorties (out of 6,745 total sorties by August 4)

US:  16%, 801 strike sorties, (out of 5,005 strike sorties by June 30)

Denmark:  11%, dropped 705 bombs (out of the 7,079 missions by August 11)

Britain:  10%, 700 strike sorties (out of 7,223 total sorties by August 15)

Canada:  10%, approximately 324 strike sorties (based on 3,175 NATO strike sorties by May 25)

Italy:  10% (Not applicable until April 27 when Italy committed 4 Tornados for strike sorties)

Norway:  10%, 596 strike sorties (out of the 6,125 missions by August 1, no longer active)

Whatever else we can say about the air campaign (and I’ll have some additional thoughts in tomorrow’s column), it has been a genuinely multinational effort.

Thoughts on Libya

[ 79 ] August 21, 2011 |

It looks as if things are coming to a close in the Libyan Civil War. Although Gaddafi could still surprise the rebels, this is about as bad as it’s been for him. Much can still go wrong, however, including a bloody siege of Tripoli, a bloody battle for Tripoli, or a bloody rebel purge of Tripoli (or all three). Some quickish thoughts:

1. I’ll be glad to see Gaddafi go. Plenty of folks have correctly pointed out that we don’t have a good sense of who the rebels are, and that it’s possible they could pursue more repressive policies than the Gaddafi government. I’m a bit more concerned that we’ll simply move to phase two of the civil war after Gaddafi goes, but these concerns were genuine. However, it wasn’t easy to see a road to democratic reform in the Libyan state prior to the civil war, and such a road is (at least fleetingly) apparent now. This may not mean much if, in two years, Libya is still at war with itself or Gaddafi has been replaced by another strongman or authoritarian faction. But for now, I have some hope for the rebels.

2. The course of the war vindicates the “Afghan Model” as a military technique, if not as a political strategy. To review, the Afghan Model is based on the idea that airpower and special forces can help indigenous troops can win wars against numerically and organizationally stronger opponents. Special forces take on training, command, and liason roles, airpower conducts close air support, attrition, and interdiction missions, and the indigenous troops force the enemy to defend strongpoints from fixed locations. This model worked very well in the first several months of the Afghanistan war, but it worked rather less well at the start of the Libyan Civil War. Although airstrikes were able to freeze Gaddafi loyalist forces, rebel offensives initially failed.

With what looks like a rebel victory in the offing, the specifically military aspect of the Afghan Model seems to have been vindicated, if in slow motion. However, the Afghan Model is as much a political as a military concept. Politically, the AM is supposed to minimize domestic opposition in the intervening country, minimize nationalist reaction in the target country, and minimize international upheaval.  In Libya, the grade is mixed on all three.  Cameron, Sarkozy, and Obama probably received more flak than they had expected, mostly because the war stretched so long.  The war likely stretched so long at least in part because of nationalist reaction within Libya.  The international community remained relatively quiet, although the violence in Syria and the ongoing collapse of the global economy may have played some part.

The other political aspect of the Afghan Model involves post-conflict stability.  If Libya crumbles back into civil war in the wake of Gaddafi’s fall, it won’t reflect well on a strategic concept that promises large returns at minimal risk.

3. Given this outcome, it really is better that the Libyan rebels finished the war than, for example, the French. Although the course of the conflict was sufficiently frustrating that you could, from time to time, half wish for a quick amphibious invasion to end it all, the victory of the rebels on the ground is probably positive for the chances for a peaceful, stable post-conflict situation.  If nothing else, the length of the civil war has forced some coalition building, even if there have repeatedly been signs that the coalition is held together by spit and gum.  Of course, the length of the Soviet-Afghan War didn’t prevent the anti-Soviet coalition from cracking.  Still, the fact that so many of the major players in the opposition became familiar with each other and were forced to work through their differences prior to taking power is probably, on balance, a good thing.

4. I am still skeptical about the wisdom of the decision-making process that brought NATO intervention about.  It’s obvious that none of the major players expected the war to last this long, and unclear if they would have intervened if they had believed Gaddafi would hold on until almost September. However, I certainly don’t believe that the Libya intervention precluded a similar intervention in Syria, or that such an intervention would have been wise on its own merits either way.  It was also apparent that the decision-makers in Washington, Paris, and London didn’t have the faintest what to do in case of a failure of Gaddafi to collapse.  “Pound away until the bombs run out, the aircraft carriers have to go home, and the allies get bored” isn’t a strategy.

And yet, here we are.  In all likelihood Gaddafi will be gone soon, and that’s a good thing.  I do hope that one of the lessons learned is that even relatively weak states can survive for a while in the face of airpower campaigns. I also hope, as always, that policymakers will remember to take the utmost care with any decisions that involve dropping bombs in order to do “good.”

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“Improper Administrative Procedures”

[ 43 ] August 9, 2011 |

As the Libyan rebels seem finally to be making some tortuously slow military progress, the political front threatens to fall apart:

Rebel leaders dissolved their own cabinet on Monday, in an effort to placate the family of an assassinated rebel military leader and quiet discord in a movement already struggling to remove the country’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, from power.

A rebel spokesman said that the prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, the only member of the cabinet who kept his job, would have to present a new slate of cabinet members to the rebel legislative body, the Transitional National Council, for approval in the coming days. The cabinet was dissolved, the spokesman said, “for improper administrative procedures” that led to the arrest and subsequent killing of the military leader, Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, a former top Libyan commander who defected to the rebel side.

The move left the rebels without several of its leaders — including the ministers of defense, finance, interior and justice — as they try to fight a three-front war, run dozens of cities under their control and rein in armed militias that have multiplied since the February uprising.

In short, the fall of Qaddafi (if it happens) isn’t going to be the end of the mess. The best hope is that there’s a sufficient rump state left to be seized when/if the rebels arrive in Tripoli. I’m not particularly optimistic about that, though; Qaddafi seems to have eschewed strengthening formal administrative structures in preference for rulership through personalist ties. When/if he’s gone, the disparate, squabbling rebels may have to assemble state institutions from scratch.

In other news, I’m a touch skeptical that Assad is on his way out, but it would be rather rich if Qaddafi outlasted Assad, despite the NATO intervention.

Targets! Give Me Targets!

[ 12 ] July 22, 2011 |

It’s important to read this:

NATO commanders requested the sophisticated surveillance aircraft after concluding that they were running out of military targets in Libya after four months of bombing and missile strikes against Kadafi’s military forces and command facilities, U.S. and NATO officials said.

….“It’s getting more difficult to find stuff to blow up,” said a senior NATO officer, noting that Kadafi’s forces are increasingly using civilian facilities to carry out military operations. “Predators really enable you study things and to develop a picture of what is going on.”

In context of this:

An air campaign starts with a target set, which might be informed by adequate intelligence and consists of targets, which are related to the casus belli and susceptible to accurate targeting. The promise of so-called surgical strikes against legitimate targets makes the use of force acceptable to policy-makers and opinion-formers on the left and the right of politics. However, as the air campaign progresses the intelligence becomes poorer and the targeting more challenging, even for precision weapons (which are only ‘precision’ in terms of means of delivery but are otherwise just as indiscriminate in such circumstances as any other munition). Therefore, inevitably there is ‘collateral’ damage. At the same time the intelligence becomes less reliable and the targets become more and more remote from the original set. Eventually the campaign ceases altogether to be intelligence-led and becomes capability-led: Rather than search out those targets which contribute to the campaign, the planners seek desperately for the targets which are susceptible to their available technology.

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