Proceed With Caution

I’m about as torn on intervention in Libya as I think I’ve ever been on an issue. On the one hand, there is no doubt we are witnessing the wholesale slaughter of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people by Muammar Qadaffi and his regime. To fall back on the argument, as some in the administration have, that Libya is just not strategically important enough to merit a strong American response stinks of moral cravenness. It seems to me that if thousands of innocent people are being slaughtered, we should be urgently seeking out any and all reasonable measures to stop or mitigate the destruction.

On the other hand, intervention–however minor–is fraught with peril. Imposing a no-fly-zone and carrying out air strikes against government forces means committing the country to an indefinite military conflict with Qadaffi. President Obama, in his press conference, definitively ruled out any use of ground forces, but the potential for escalation beyond the limited measures thus far proposed is real. The UN Security Council resolution passed yesterday authorizes “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. So while the idea of implementing a no-fly-zone and selective strikes against government forces engaged in atrocities sounds reasonable, one has to wonder, what will happen if an American jet is shot down? Or if in spite of these measures Qadaffi’s men take the rest of rebel-controlled territory? How high will the pressure then be to justify our initial commitment by ratcheting up our involvement? Will Obama be able to deal with the very real possibility of “losing Libya,” as a host of critics will inevitably contend he has? The president’s reassurances about the limited US aims today sounded forceful, but foreign adventures have a funny way of messing with leaders’ professions of restraint.

The biggest problem concerning our policy in Libya, which Secretary of State Clinton and others have alluded to repeatedly in defending their cautious early steps, is that we don’t know who the rebels are. The line between defending civilians and backing a rebellion we know precious little about is a thin one, and we should be extremely wary about getting in bed with Qadaffi’s disjointed group of enemies. In Egypt and elsewhere, the alleged Islamism of the protest movements has been used as a boogeyman to scare away support for the popular uprisings. In Libya, though, the risk of Islamist forces profiting from the current situation appears much more credible. Ross Douthat noted in his Times column on Monday, “Eastern Libya, the locus of the rebellion, sent more foreign fighters per capita to join the Iraqi insurgency than any other region in the Arab world.” There’s not a whole lot we can do to shape the political dynamics in Eastern Libya, but we should at least be careful to avoid repeating our mistakes of the ’80s of arming the resisters of Soviet occupation who later turned their fanaticism–and the weapons we provided them–against us.

Lastly, as many have noted, military intervention means injecting the US into a regional movement whose chief asset so far has been its homegrown nature. The risk, at least so long as the US resists over-engaging and avoids causing significant civilian casualties (a big if), is not so much that this will look like western imperialism. The backing of the UN and Arab League combined with the widespread calls among Libyans for US action have given us some cover there for now. Our intervention, however, does undermine the wholly organic nature of the uprisings to this point, which has been crucial in bringing together disparate domestic factions in Egypt and Tunisia around common cause. Indeed, one of the biggest causes for concern out of Libya is the prospect that intervention will halt Qadaffi’s advance, only to leave a Qadaffi-controlled west of the country and an east of the country fragmented among competing rebel factions–a brand new failed state.

Still, the alternative is to do nothing as an unaccountable thug massacres his own people. If the much-cited “responsibility to protect” declared by the UN in 2005 means anything, it must compel action here. There aren’t any great options, but if President Obama stands by the principles outlined in his speech today, we stand a chance of averting a worst-case scenario. The key is always keeping in mind that our mission in Libya is to protect civilians by all reasonable means available to us–NOT effecting regime change or backing the rebellion (at least not until we better understand its constitution).

The ugly implication of such a policy is that if our efforts fail and Qadaffi reasserts control over all of Libya, our efforts must end. There must be no doubling down or saving face through escalation. There must be no talk about how with a small commitment of troops, we can reverse the situation and rid the world of a terrible tyrant who has defied international law and represents an existential threat to the western way of life. We’ve already watched that movie…

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