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Tag: "libya"

Misrata

[ 84 ] April 11, 2011 |

Misrata’s current situation remains a very large problem in any de facto partition scheme:

The Libyan port city of Misrata was one of the first urban areas to fall to rebel when the pro-democracy uprising began in February. Since then, the city has been under siege from forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, including the feared Special Forces Khamis Brigade. The city is a short 130 miles from Gaddafi’s power base in Tripoli and — due to its location — has been completely cut off from any support from the main rebel controlled areas hundreds of miles away in eastern Libya. Since falling to the rebels, hundreds have died in fighting during the government’s repeated attempts to retake the city. It is a lonely outpost of rebellion far behind enemy lines.

The siege has had brutal effects on the humanitarian situation in the city. Reports coming out paint a bleak picture: many have no electricity or running water, while food and medical supplies are running low. The ring of pro-Gaddafi forces around Misrata has made is extremely difficult for aid organizations to delivery supplies by land. However, recently the international community has established a critical lifeline into the besieged city — from the sea.

Leaving the city under rebel control but surrounded by loyalist forces would bring to mind an obvious parallel to Srebrenica. If the Gaddafi government persists, it is exceedingly likely to value the recovery of Misrata much more than NATO will value its defense. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the intervention designed to prevent a massacre in Benghazi set the stage for one in Misrata. Of course, it would have been nice if someone had thought this through before the bombing started.

Don’t follow leaders

[ 95 ] April 5, 2011 |

Anyone who has blogged or indeed done any form of journamalism for very long has published things they regret, so it’s a bit unfair to focus too much on particular lapses of judgment by a good writers, especially whenever such authors, like Job and Robert McNamara, abhor themselves and repent (sort of).

So the point here isn’t to bash anyone in particular, but rather to focus on the substance of the claim that it makes sense to trust Barack Obama’s judgment over your own because he’s supposedly smarter, better informed, better able to understand the the consequences of his actions, and more far-sighted than you are.

On at least one level I would like to believe this is true — few people are completely immune to the attractions of authoritarianism, and it would be pretty to think that our leaders are at heart good parents, who want only the best for the sometimes wayward children they protect and defend.

But I would also like to think that when I became a man I put aside childish things, and a child-like trust in the authorities is one of those things.

So in general I don’t trust Barack Obama’s judgment over my own, and I see no reason to do so. The reasons given for doing so really come down to two: he’s smarter and better-informed than I am (I take “better able to understand the consequences of his actions” and “more far-sighted” as just specific examples of, respectively, having better information and being smarter).

But is this true? In what sense is Obama “smarter” than me (or you?). It’s become a platitude that intelligence comes in many forms, but it’s a platitude precisely because it’s true. Now it so happens that Obama’s demonstrated forms of intelligence — doing well in school and being a fluent writer — are ones we share. It also happens that the value of that kind of intelligence for the purposes of political leadership, while not negligible, tends to be overstated by fluent writers who did well in school. (In terms of sheer analytical intelligence, two of the top three presidents were probably Wilson and Nixon, who are also two of the very worst). Anyway, the claim that Obama can be trusted to make good decisions because he’s “smart” depends, to put it mildly, on a great deal of faith-based reasoning in regard to both his general intelligence and especially in regard to the degree to which the specific sort of intelligence he possesses translates into being a good leader.

Then there’s the claim that Obama is “better informed.” This could mean he’s better informed in general — better educated and possessing greater relevant experience — or it can mean more knowledgeable regarding the specific issue at hand. The first claim is weak. Obama’s education was a typical one for members of the professional classes in contemporary America, and his relevant experience for the office of the presidency was unusually slender for someone in his position. So, in my view, “trusting” Obama about Libya or Guantanamo or anything else comes down to the claim that he is privy to information that makes his judgment more trustworthy than yours or mine. Now obviously this is by nature an untestable proposition — the evidence for it being the kind of evidence that ex hypothesi isn’t available to you and me — but it’s worth noting that this is precisely the same claim that was made for why people should trust George W. Bush to “keep us safe” by locking people up forever without trials and torturing some of them in the bargain.

It goes without saying that a president is going to have access to some information that isn’t available to ordinary citizens (it should also go without saying that presidents are constantly trying to expand the extent of that information gap). But in the end, decisions such as whether to place people in “indefinite detention” rather than charging them with crimes and putting them on trial, or whether to engage in unilateral warfare in the pursuit of this or that supposedly crucial national interest or universal value, are at bottom matters of principle more than of pragmatic judgment. And on that score, there’s not the slightest reason to think that Barack Obama’s judgment is to be trusted any more than George W. Bush’s was — especially given the striking similarities in many of their policies regarding the central political and moral questions of their respective administrations.

More on the constitutionality of US participation in the Libyan civil war

[ 37 ] April 4, 2011 |

Bruce Ackerman points out that Obama’s actions are arguably even more imperious than the constitutionally questionable actions of his predecessors, in regard to unilateral presidential decisions to engage in war.

As in the case of civil liberties abuses, this is yet another instance where progressives have as a practical matter almost no representation in the political process. Most Republicans have decided that their love for imperial adventures trumps their hatred of Obama (at least until something starts to go wrong), while most Democrats have either chosen to duck and cover, or have decided that Obama is so smart and wise and full of good judgment that they’ll put their objections aside.

On a related note.

Death and taxes

[ 19 ] April 3, 2011 |

I suspect James Madison et. al. would be appalled to discover that it would eventually become much harder for presidents to pursue even the most modest aspects of their preferred domestic policies than it would be for them to launch, with no congressional participation of any kind, unilateral wars against nations that hadn’t attacked America, and posed no threat to our security.

Why Can’t My Twins be More Marketable?

[ 8 ] April 1, 2011 |

Too awesome:

Yoo Better Believe That’s Going Too Far

[ 43 ] March 31, 2011 |

I’ll have a bigger piece about the subject next week, but as I’ve said before, to assert that presidential initiations of military force — whether wise or unwise — violate the Constitution strikes me as being as pointless and anachronistic as claiming that the federal government lacks the power to regulate the national economy. I’m not crazy about the consequences of the de facto constitutional order with respect to presidential war powers, but in Congress continues to delegate warmaking authority to the president I think the issues raised should properly be viewed as policy rather than constitutional questions.

But when it comes to Clinton’s claim that Obama could proceed with attacks on Libya in the face of congressional opposition, though, I get off the bus. The Constitution shares warmaking powers between the president and Congress. If Congress wants to delegate its powers to the president — whether actively or even through acquiescence — that’s one thing. But to claim that that the president can simply defy valid statutory restrictions is, as Adam says, lawless. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s endorsement of Yoovian conceptions of executive power can no longer be considered surprising, but it’s still dismaying.

The Current Situation in Libya

[ 33 ] March 31, 2011 |

So, here is where we are:

  • Rebel forces have been unable to hold the ground that they recently captured (perhaps traversed is a better term) and have retreated back to Adjadibya.  Logistics play a major role in the problems of both Loyalist and rebel forces, because supply lines lengthen as either advances.  The Loyalists seem to have somewhat better logistics, but they have more onerous requirements because of their heavy weaponry, and they’re suffering from airstrikes all along their lines.  As many have suggested, this is a recipe for stalemate.
  • The US and the UK (and probably France as well) are trying to break the stalemate through the deployment of CIA, SAS, and MI6 operatives.  In addition to carrying out political work (vetting rebels, probing Loyalist forces for defectors), these operatives will be playing a military role in any rebel advance.  SOF will analyze Loyalist positions, identify vulnerabilities, illuminate targets, and coordinate rebel attacks with airstrikes.  This is the “Afghan Model,” and could be very effective against Loyalist forces.  Variables include the intensity of air attacks, the number of SOF, and the quality of rebel forces.  But yes, this does represent an escalation of UK/US/French involvement.
  • The next big political and military problem seems to me to be Sirte.  Rebels, assisted by air attacks, made absolutely no headway when they reached it last week.  With Western SOF assistance they might have a better chance.  Taking Sirte wouldn’t resolve logistical problems, but it might crack open the entire Loyalist defense and demoralize Gaddafi’s supporters.  However, it appears from casual observation that the people of Sirte don’t feel that they need Western “protection” from the Gaddafi regime, and aren’t enthusiastic about the rebellion.  This poses some very serious question for NATO (which is now in command) if and when they rebels seize the city.  A bloody purge of Loyalists is not out of the question, and Western SOF may find themselves shifting very quickly between attack and restraint missions.

Altogether, I’d say that the situation is less hopeful than it was a few days ago.  In my view, partition and Western escalation remain the only two plausible options (arming the rebels is unlikely to have a near term effect on their capabilities), and neither of those are particularly good outcomes.

Muddling Through this Week’s Column

[ 3 ] March 30, 2011 |

My WPR column this week is on grand strategy and muddling.

In fact, there is no simple dichotomy opposing grand strategy and muddling through. The world is complex, and grand strategies can often lead to unsettled ground. Often, a clear grand strategic idea without a clear concept of how to get from point A to point B makes muddling through inevitable. Meanwhile, the methods developed and interests revealed by muddling through a situation like Libya can coalesce into grand strategic principles if, by scrambling to justify a particular intervention, we create precedents. Because such precedents can be suboptimal, Daniel Nexon, a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, warns against “the development of general principles around specific cases,” and suggests that the United States shouldn’t “retcon” the Libyan War into a prefabricated grand strategic framework. Most aspects of life, for states and people, involve muddling through, even if we do have a grand strategy. For instance, British grand strategy in the 18th and 19th centuries may well have been focused around preventing French domination of the European continent, but this orientation offered only tenuous guidance in solving most of the everyday foreign policy crises that faced the empire.

Cole’s Case For Intervention In Libya

[ 105 ] March 27, 2011 |

Juan Cole has another argument in favor of Allied intervention into Libya. As an open-to-persuasion skeptic, I would like to raise a couple points. First, I’m suspicious of this characterization of the opposing arguments:

1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)
2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong).
3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of military force.

We can quibble over whether this is a litany of strawmen — I suppose there are people who fall into these categories — but they certainly don’t represent counter-arguments in their strongest form. Let’s make clear up front that there are no absolutes, that there are cases in which military attacks by world powers can be justified on humanitarian grounds. It’s still neither here not there in terms of whether any particular intervention is justified. I agree that every potential intervention needs to be evaluated on its own merits. So how strong is the case here? Well, here’s the key point for me:

Assuming that NATO’s UN-authorized mission in Libya really is limited ( it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole, however distasteful it is to have Nicolas Sarkozy grandstanding.

This may well be right. But, er, that’s a hell of an assumption, isn’t it? What happens if 90 days of bombing doesn’t succeed in removing Qaddafi? What happens if a more successful revolution leads to anarchy or civil war or a regime that key officials in the United States government don’t like? Obviously, if you assume that the intervention will be short and effective it’s easy to make the case, but I don’t think that it’s prudent to make that assumption. I think we need to consider what happens in non-best-case scenarios, and certainly Cole doesn’t have good answers to these questions. So I hope that he’s right that the strikes on Libya will be short-term and efficacious, but I remain skeptical.

Libya Related BH

[ 6 ] March 27, 2011 |

Spencer and I diavlog about airpower and such:

Rebels Advance

[ 38 ] March 26, 2011 |

This is good:

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces retreated from this strategic city on Saturday, running for dozens of miles back along the coast in the first significant advance for Libyan rebels since American and European airstrikes began a week ago.

The rebel victory was the first sign that the allied attacks, directed not only against Colonel Qaddafi’s aircraft and defenses but also against his ground troops, were changing the dynamics of the battle for control of the country. As night fell, rebel forces had not only recaptured Ajdabiya, a crucial hub city in eastern Libya, but had also driven almost uncontested to the town of Brega, erasing weeks of loss as the airstrikes opened the way.

Three ways in which this is positive:

  1. As momentum shifts away from Gaddafi and towards the rebels, there may be more defections. I say “may” because the least loyal layers have been peeled away, and remaining Loyalist forces may fear rebel reprisal. But nevertheless, as the scales tip against Gaddafi there’s still some hope that his regime may collapse.
  2. If this war ends in partition rather than in rebel victory, it’s helpful that larger swaths of the country end up under rebel control. Although there are still substantial question about the rebel’s plans for Libya, there is at least the hope that they’ll try to build a liberal system of governance.
  3. It may indicate that the balance between Loyalist vs. rebel plus coalition forces favors the latter more than I had hoped. To be sure, there are still reasons to be skeptical of the rebel’s ability to win the war militarily, but the capture of Ajdabiya is a positive sign.

Ragtag

[ 15 ] March 24, 2011 |

This leaves me feeling skeptical about the rebels chances:

After the uprising, the rebels stumbled as they tried to organize. They did a poor job of defining themselves when Libyans and the outside world tried to figure out what they stood for. And now, as they try to defeat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s armed forces and militias, they will have to rely on allied airstrikes and young men with guns because the army that rebel military leaders bragged about consists of only about 1,000 trained men.

See also Drum. The Times article goes on to describe the leadership cadre, or lack thereof, of the rebellion. My thinking now is that, since we’re already committed, the best outcome is de facto partition between east and west, enforced by coalition airpower. This is not a good outcome, but it’s hard to imagine turning the rebels into a force capable of taking Tripoli. The alternative seems to be a degree of commitment, including at least special operations forces, that would essentially make a farce of the idea that the revolution is led by the Libyan people.

It’s possible that there’s an endgame I’m not seeing, but at this point there’s cause to doubt that the crisis would be resolved by Gaddafi’s exit. The battle lines have been drawn, positions have hardened, and it’s hard to see the Gaddafi Loyalists just handing power over to the rebel coalition.  The fluid, contingent moment seems to have passed.

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