Friday, March 25, 2011

Success in Libya

I'm still wrestling with the military intervention in Libya. I don't fully support it, mainly because I'm still not sure what the longer-term objectives are, but at the same time I'm not against it, and in fact, if I had to choose, I'd say I support it despite my very serious concerns and reservations.

And, yes, that's because I believe that sometimes war can be an effective instrument of peace. Is there inconsistency in that there is intervention in Libya but not in, say, Bahrain or Yemen? Sure. Is there a possibility of "mission creep"? Of course.

But I suppose the arguments in favour of intervention outweigh the arguments against it. Specifically, there were, and remain, significant humanitarian reasons to act.

And not being able to intervene everywhere, and not being willing to intervene in places with similar problems, isn't an argument against not intervening anywhere. We have to pick and choose. And it seems to me that the right choice was made with respect to Libya -- which, let us not forget, was not made by the U.S. alone but by an international alliance and, perhaps most importantly, the Arab League. And it is not the U.S. leading the intervention but NATO. And Libyans, other than Qaddafi and his thugs, seem to be welcoming it. As the NYT's Nicholas Kristof, hardly a warmonger, reports:

This may be a first for the Arab world: An American airman who bailed out over Libya was rescued from his hiding place in a sheep pen by villagers who hugged him, served him juice and thanked him effusively for bombing their country.

Even though some villagers were hit by American shrapnel, one gamely told an Associated Press reporter that he bore no grudges. Then, on Wednesday in Benghazi, the major city in eastern Libya whose streets would almost certainly be running with blood now if it weren't for the American-led military intervention, residents held a "thank you rally." They wanted to express gratitude to coalition forces for helping save their lives.

Doubts are reverberating across America about the military intervention in Libya. Those questions are legitimate, and the uncertainties are huge. But let's not forget that a humanitarian catastrophe has been averted for now and that this intervention looks much less like the 2003 invasion of Iraq than the successful 1991 gulf war to rescue Kuwait from Iraqi military occupation.

This is also one of the few times in history when outside forces have intervened militarily to save the lives of citizens from their government. More commonly, we wring our hands for years as victims are massacred, and then, when it is too late, earnestly declare: "Never again."

Yes, American troops were welcomed in Iraq, too, before things went horribly wrong. But Libya is not Iraq and this intervention is not that war. Could it become something like that? Yes, perhaps. But there are always risks. In the wake of the Iraq War and Occupation, should the military never be used this way? Is any and all intervention wrong?

Yes, I know. What about not just Bahrain but, say, Burma and North Korea? Well, again, we have to be realistic about when and where intervention for humanitarian purposes can succeed, as well as when and where an international coalition can be put together. Sometimes other measures are called for, like sanctions. I do not support military intervention in Iran, for example, which would likely be a disaster. But sometimes, just sometimes, you need to use force. With Qaddafi threatening mass murder of his own people, at a time of historic pro-democracy movements throughout the Middle East, this would appear to be one of those times.

And, so far, there has been significant success. Check out Juan Cole's list of the top ten accomplishments of the U.N. no-fly zone, which concludes:

The liberation movement at the moment likely controls about half of Libya's population, as long as Misrata and Zintan do not fall. It also likely controls about half of the petroleum facilities. If Benghazi can retake Brega and Ra's Lanouf and Zawiya, Qaddafi soon won't have gasoline for his tanks or money to pay his mercenaries. Pundits who want this whole thing to be over with in 7 days are being frankly silly. Those who worry about it going on forever are being unrealistic. Those who forget or cannot see the humanitarian achievements already accomplished are being willfully blind.

I appreciate the very persuasive arguments against this intervention and I respect many of those making them, including the likes of Glenn Greenwald and many Democrats in Congress. I wouldn't go so far as to say that they're being "willfully blind." In the end, they may be proven right. But we don't know how this will end, and, as of right now, even without a sense of what the longer-term objectives are, it is undeniable that a great deal has been achieved, much to the credit of those who have taken the risk to intervene with force.

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