Libya Lessons (2): NATO is No Longer Necessary – Get Out Now


Part one of this post is here. Here are a few more lessons to draw:

6. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is, unfortunately, encouraging dictators to dig in instead of scram. The ICC is classic liberal internationalism -a multilateral forum crafted mainly by the liberal democracies for the purpose of spreading international law and taming the ‘anarchy’ of international relations. It looks like a great idea, and indeed the US reticence to it is based on rather specious claims that US soldiers might somehow get hauled before it despite the myriad protections to prevent that from happening. (The real US concern is any constraint on war-making by the Pentagon, and the US obsession with its ‘exceptionalism.’) I support the ICC and wish the US would join.

That said, it is pretty clear that ICC indictments against Gaddafi and sons encouraged them to stay and fight, because flight was impossible. If they can’t flee to a safe haven – because the ICC makes it a sanctionable offense for any state to harbor them – then they have no choice but to stay and slug it out to the bitter end. And indeed, there is a nice rest home for Afro-Middle Eastern despots – autocratic Saudi Arabia. The Saudi took in Idi Amin in 1980 and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Gaddafi would make a nice addition; perhaps he and Ali could reminisce about the good old days, like in some John Hughes movie for dictators. But once the indictments came down, the Gaddafis had nowhere to go, even though they were sending pretty clear signals for awhile that they would exchange an exit for abdication and an end to the conflict.

It seems to met that getting these guys out of power is the most important priority. The ICC, paradoxically, gets in the way. Remember that for awhile there it looked like Gaddafi might win or split the country. No one expected Tripoli to fall so easily. I think it would be a much better outcome to offer these guys just about anything they want to scram. Usually all they want is their family out with them, some cash to keep on with the good life, and immunity from prosecution. That strikes me as a pretty good bargain, even if if thwarts justice. And it is a good precedent for trying to get other autocratic nasties, like the Mugabe and Kim cliques in Zimbabwe and NK, out the way as well without a huge bloodbath.

7. The American president needs to start declaring war again. Libya has all but set in stone the awful, dictatorship-looking, and very unconstitutional practice that the US president can war with minimal Congressional intervention or even approval. The president’s shenanigans around the War Powers Act were disgraceful. Obama made a good case for the war in March and April, and it would have been a good exercise in national deliberation on US warmaking after Iraq to have had a big national and Congressional debate. Instead, Obama – a constitutional lawyer no less! – took the low road; isn’t this one of the reasons we voted for him, and against the Bushist, I-can-do-whatever-I-want GOP?

8. Get NATO out as soon as possible, i.e., right now. The NATO mission, against high odds and great (and deserved) skepticism, helped. Don’t push your luck, and keep the mission as absolutely minimal as necessary. Once Tripoli fell last week, NATO should have withdrawn immediately. The NTC clearly no longer needs NATO assistance. Gaddafi is finished, not matter what his nut-ball sons say on TV. To keep NATO on-mission when it isn’t necessary anymore, only stokes the anger of countries, especially China and Russia, that dislike R2P already. If NATO keeps staying involved, it will indeed look like R2P means ‘regime change’ and not the protection of human rights. NATO’s desire to stay in the game is understandable: this is a nice win for NATO after a decade of GWoT confusion and transatlantic tension, and Libya’s course clearly impacts the southern tier of the NATO states. But those benefits are more than outweighed by the need for limits: the West is broke now, so it should set a precedent of restrained intervention, even when things are going well. Nor do we want anything like Iraq – where the US/West gets pulled deeply into domestic reconstruction by hanging around. The best way to prevent the mission creep everyone worried about in this operation is to end as soon as possible (i.e. in this case, when the NTC would no longer be wiped out in a bloodbath without NATO) and we have clearly reached that point now.


NB: On an unrelated note, you should probably read this, from the foremost proponent of the ‘China threat’ school.

NB2: Last week I argued that the US needs another stimuls. US conservatives and the whole GOP field oppose this. But on Monday the yield on US Treasuries dropped below 2%! That hasn’t happened since the 40s. If that doesn’t tell you the USG should spend, because no else will – i.e., people are so desperate to save, they will even take just 1.98% interest on their savings – then nothing will. But I have no doubt the GOP will trash Obama’s jobs initiative today with no hesitantation. It’s going from bad to worse.

Libya Lessons (1): Don’t Gloat, but Liberal Interventionism did Work

Part 2 of this post will come on Thursday.

There is a lot of commentary, of course, on the war. I think, this, this, and this are a good start. Here are my own thoughts:

1. Can Libya be rolled in with Kosovo 1999, Afghanistan 2001, and France’ recent intervention in Ivory Coast into a winning model for future western interventions in the severe conflict zones? Somalia 1993 is not necessarily a counter-case, because the US went there to distribute aid (ie, nation-build), not to actually intervene militarily with a defined outcome for ‘victory.’

2. NATO pulled itself back from the post-GWoT brink, especially concerning Europe. Libya helps counter-act the growing belief that the Europeans don’t want to fight anymore. But it’s very obvious that Libya – minor country of just 7 million people – pushed NATO coordination to the brink. I remain a supporter of NATO, because it pools liberal democratic force, but Libya was a bullet dodged as much as a success. NATO should not be gloating or cheering, but rather thanking the gods that it all didn’t go horribly wrong.

3. The emergence of NATO a la carte is now entrenched. Some allies simply decided they didn’t want to be involved in Libya – Turkey and Germany specifically. But to avoid an alliance-wide crisis, they didn’t stand in the way either. So NATO countries, including the US (‘leading from behind’, the early shift in command to NATO), dipped in and out, more or less as dictated by their domestic politics. This was presaged by the many conditions placed on the operation of national forces in NATO’s Afghanistan operation in the last decade. Together, this could portend a major, new, de facto (although never admitted) modality in NATO’s use of force. On the one hand, it opens the possibility that other non-NATO members could cooperate more easily (if Germany can drop out, why not invite Mexico or SK in for a mission or two?). But most importantly, a la carte modalities effectively erode the collective security guarantee of Article 5 (that all the NATO members will fight as a unit if any is attacked). So the Eastern Europeans should be pretty terrified right now – maybe Germany or Spain will slack if Russia starts bulllying the Baltics.

4. This should not be a cause for neo-con gloating, or otherwise lead to a renewal of Bush, democratic imperialism, American empire talk, and the rest. The arguments against the campaign were very strong and the reason why most proponents argued for a limited intervention – a thumb on the scale to help the rebels, not an invasion cloaked in overwrought ‘freedom agenda’ rhetoric. My support for the intervention was narrow. NATO was to prevent a bloodbath, but otherwise let the rebels do it themselves. That would encourage local ownership of the results, prevent another Mideast quagmire for western forces, and limit the West’s moral culpability if it all went horribly wrong (as it may still). The obvious comparison is of course Iraq, where we are far more responsible for all the death and chaos of the 2000s. Intellectual defenders of the intervention should realize that we got fairly lucky in Libya, even as we did help shape the course. So hubris is foolish. On the other hand, opponents who discounted the closeness of Libya to NATO (making intervention easier), the close attention to limits (so keeping the intervention cheaper and less bloody for the West), and moral value of Gaddafi’s ouster (the rationale to begin with), really should recognize this. Walt ducks this by saying he never doubted the outcome once the US got involved, even though he argued earlier that we shouldn’t get involved, and the National Interest really should apologize to Samatha Power for its mean-spirited May/June 2011 cover.

5. Keep refining R2P. If Libya had gone wrong, it would have killed liberal interventionism. The West is running out of money for this sort of things, and its publics don’t like it either. The ‘rest’ worry that it is imperialism, and even non-western democracies like India, Japan, and S Korea, quietly reject or won’t sacrifice seriously for R2P. R2P Critics insists on taking an all-or-nothing attitude toward these sorts of operations – that any intervention will become a quagmire like Iraq, so we shouldn’t do it. But to be fair, Libya actually worked out pretty well. The limits on western intervention were maintained; ‘mission creep’ did not happen. The right guys won the war with minimal western assistance. The whole world didn’t have an Iraq-style freak-out over US imperialism. That’s not bad at all for R2P to my mind. But we should be open to the possibility that most R2P operations won’t go as well, but that isn’t a reason for not trying. R2P is so messy and hard, that we should be prepared to accept some level of failure.

Does it Make Humanitarian Sense to Let Libyans Fight it Out Alone?


Regular readers know that I supported the Libyan intervention primarily on humanitarian grounds. For my writing on Libya, please try here and here. My big concern was that the fall of Benghazi might initiate a massacre like Srebrenica. If a limited intervention could forestall that, I think it was justifiable. To critics who said this was duplicitous, because we did not intervene in Ivory Coast or Syria, my response was that Libya moved first (its problems were presented earlier), which matters in a world of scarce resources with limited knowledge of the future. Also, Libya was proximate to NATO making it that much easier and so more morally compelling. This is hardly an air-tight case; Libyan lives are no more ontologically valuable than Syrian or Ivorian. But there are limits to what outsiders can do; and I thought Libya pretty well met the nexus of limited western capabilities – badly restricted by American military overstretch and degraded European militaries – and the clear humanitarian imperative raised when Gaddafi and sons started ranting about ‘rivers of blood’ and ‘hunting the rebels like rats, alley by alley.’ Non-interventionists retort that a massacre was not actually likely, but I disagree with that assessment.

A much stronger argument raised by non-interventionists directly challenges the humanitarian rationale. This argues that civil wars that stalemate, as Libya’s has now, actually produce more death and destruction over time than quick, definitive endings. I don’t have any particularly good cite on this, but generally I find that Max Hastings at the Financial Times, Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy, and various authors at the National Interest have leaned in this direction on Libya. In passing, I should say that I find all these authors to raise excellent points. Their analysis is worth your time and vastly more professional and serious than the partisan and uniformed commentary coming from Congress and the GOP presidential field. If you want to know why Libya is a mistake, read Walt or Hastings; don’t waste your time with FoxNews or Newt Gingrich.

So if the Libyan civil war drags on for years, with hundreds of thousands killed, does that mean it would have been better for Gaddafi to win early, and ‘only’ kill ten thousand? This strikes me as quite strong (and humane, albeit macabre) logic. Here are three possible responses:

1. Any comparative body counts (yes, it is that ghoulish to say so, but this is what murderous thugs force on us) must account for all the violence Gaddafi would also inflict on Libyans in the wake of his victory and restoration of the old order. In other words, it is not enough to say that Gaddafi would kill fewer than the civil war would, therefore his victory is better, because Gaddafi would end up killing many more in the future, presumably, in order to re-bolster his police state. These future murders and persecutions must be included with the casualties of a Benghazi massacre on the interventionist side of the ledger.

2. At the time of intervention (mid-March), it was not possible to seriously predict that the civil war would drag on. Indeed, even now, no one really knows how long this will go. Gaddafi could fold at any time; defections keep happening; the rebels do seem to be, slowly, clawing back. Even Walt agrees that Gaddafi is probably on his way out. This lowers the probability of a much higher body count from a civil war, because we don’t really know how long it will, in fact, last. On the hand, the probability was pretty high that a Gaddafi victory in Benghazi would lead to a massacre.

In the end, the only way to definitively know is post-hoc, which means we must estimate at the pre-hoc time of decision. We can only say if the intervention was humanitarianly beneficial after the war ends. If it does take 5 years and 250,000 dead, we will then look back in 5 years and concur that it was an error. If it ends next week, we won’t. By way of example, look at our thinking on Iraq 2. In 2003, the Bush people promised a blitzkreig like Desert Storm. We were to be liberators with a quick ‘mission accomplished’ and home by Christmas. Like many, I (foolishly) believed this narrative also and supported the Iraq War. In retrospect, this was a terrible error for which I feel ashamed and for which students regularly criticize me, but I (and many others) only knew that clearly by, say, 2005/06. (How Bush can still say he would do it all over again is just beyond me.)

Like so many, I thought the Bush people had actually planned something for Iraq after the victory, especially given that it was a war of choice with lots of time to plan and think. And indeed, if Iraq 2 had gone as Iraq 1, Bush 2 would be hailed as one of America’s great presidents. Unfortunately, decisions can’t be made with full information at the time, and looming massacre in Benghazi forced a rapid decision on Obama. This is the real distinction between Obama’s Libya forced intervention decision and Bush’s Iraq war of choice. Obama had little time to prepare, and so inevitably the operation is clunky and rushed; Bush, by contrast, had months of time to plan Iraq and its aftermath (plus the years spent on the Future of Iraq Project) and clearly didn’t do it. This is why I reject Walt’s comparisons of the Libyan war to Iraq 2.

So Obama had to make the best choice at the time and with time pressing dramatically. And while it is true that Iraq should have served as a cautionary against charging in, it is also true that Bosnia and Rwanda should have served as a cautionary against doing nothing and that Kosovo presented a possible model for how NATO airpower could help tip the local balance. The analysis, because it must be predictive, is messy and imprecise, and if Libya becomes Iraq 2, we will all be chastened as we were after Iraq 2 turned into a bloodbath. But remember that we were also all chastened after Rwanda also turned into a bloodbath. We felt ashamed we did nothing and promised to try harder the next time. This is that next time.

3. Finally, I am not sure how much I buy it that quickly resolved civil wars are in fact for the best. This post was motivated by this story at the Economist on the end of the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a good parallel with Libya, because it was a civil war that dragged on endlessly, killing thousands over decades and regularly debilitating Sri Lanka’s ability to develop and normalize. I think this is why everyone looked away as the Singhalese army basically wiped out the Tamils with inevitable end-massacre. Everyone just wanted it to end, and this seemed like the final closure the world wanted on an awful, endless problem that know one really knew how to resolve. One victor, completely triumphant and imposing a peace that might eventually mature, seemed better than years and years further of more of the awful same. James Fearon’s work on civil wars suggests this too: the best way to end them is a definitive victory by one side or the other. The American civil war would be a case in point, and definitive end of secession was clearly behind Lincoln’s tacit endorsement of Sherman’s scorched earth policy in the South. The Singhalese provided such an end in Sri Lanka, and NATO intervention probably stopped this outcome in Libya.

But note also the extraordinary cost the Economist notes of the Singhalese victory. Does anyone really feel comfortable advocating that? If tens of thousands of guaranteed Libyan deaths prevent possible hundreds of thousands of future Libyan deaths, how does one possibly morally choose among those alternatives? Who wants to say to the residents of Benghazi (or the Tamils), you must die for the ‘greater good’ of society? There are examples of fragile peace between the sides of a civil conflict (Bosnia today, or Cyprus) that manage to avoid the ‘eliminationist’ logic that one side needs to win in order to finally stop the killing. And who wants to make such an awful, unbelievably cold-blooded decision? Who could sleep at night endorsing this? Bill Clinton cannot.

R2P’s ‘Time Problem’: Helping Libya, not Syria, b/c Libya Revolted First


I am participating in a scenario on what the West’s response to the Syria revolt should be. A growing number of contributors are arguing for western intervention. Proponents explicitly cite the Western intervention in Libya. I have argued against this. Another such intervention would likely split NATO, bring howls of protest from the BRICS, and the likely western interveners (US, France, Britain) are already overstretched in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These are good practical reasons (one can only do so much). But they do not alter the obvious moral question – why help Libyans, not Syrians, or by extension, Yemenis who are also dying in increasing numbers for an admirable effort for more democracy? It is ontologically horrific to say that Libyan lives are more valuable than those of other Arab (or Africans, East Timorese, etc). So why help Libya, but not others?

The most obvious answers are, unfortunately pretty coarse and strategic: Libya is close (Rwanda was far from NATO); Gaddafi is a western enemy already (so getting rid of him is a ‘twofer’ – saving lives and eliminating an nuisance); Libya has oil. But these aren’t normative answers which fit the R2P framework. They are more traditional national interest answers. Within a traditional national interest frame of security (realism) these are good answers. But the whole point of R2P is to get beyond that sort of crass maneuvering and suggest there is minimum moral benchmark of global treatment of civilians.  If we accept the R2P logic, then some kind of moral distinctions should be made beyond the ‘extras’ that we don’t like Gaddafi already or that his oil supplies the huge EU market.

I do realize that this holds constant the notion that the West should go in. R2P might easily be construed as a recipe for neo-imperialism under the guise of human rights, as clearly many think the Libyan intervention really is. To which I would say two things. First, hold this thought for the sake of the argument. Assume that multiple interventions are justified, but scarce resources limit how much outsiders could intervene. Second, I don’t actually think R2P has to become a neo-conservative gimmick to go back to US empire. It could, I suppose, but that need not happen. Remember that the UN Security Council, including Russia and China, voted unanimously for the R2P resolution (1674), as did the General Assembly. (Go here for all the details.)

So if we assume that an R2P moral framework fits the Libyan intervention, then the question of the benchmarks for intervention come up. I argued before that Libya was a unique moment because a potential massacre was brewing in Benghazi. But it is also increasingly clear that the Libyan rebels got help because they moved first. That is, they revolted earlier and more seriously than did other places in Arab Spring. This has generated a lot of hypocrisy criticism about why then we did not go into Ivory Coast, and won’t into Syria or Yemen. This suggest it is just western imperialism after all in Libya.

I don’t think so, so this why I suggest that the timing of such crises might be a justification for deciding in which to intervene and which not. Ideally, of course, under an R2P frame, all brutal repressions would be subject to the same level of moral opposition, because any human life anywhere has the same ontological value (ie, Libyans are not ‘more’ human the Yemenis or Ivorians). This is so, but the reality of scarce resources in possible interveners means that discrimination will be made, and here is where I think timing can help to reduce the ontological awfulness of not helping Ivorians or Syrians while doing so in Libya.

I bring this up, because the debate over when to apply the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine has no good answer beyond the likelihood of mass slaughter. Nexon has done a good job of laying out all the tangled issues that justified the Libyan intervention (here and here), but he still can’t really place his finger well on anything that might be coherently called an ‘Obama Doctrine.’ The problem with the ‘mass slaughter’ benchmark is that it too places an uncomfortable value on life – ‘more’ is more important than ‘less.’ That is probably right, but leaves several obvious problems: how many is ‘more’ (1,000, 10,000, 100,000)?; there are lots of slaughters globally (Darfur, Rwanda), so how do we choose (if they have oil or not?!); any high benchmark of deaths is cold comfort to the ‘few’ people who are nonetheless being machine-gunned in Syria.

So it occurs to me that one benchmark that might help is the ‘first mover one. Libya gets help, because at the time of the revolt, other repressions (Yemen, Syria) weren’t so bad at the time. This has three advantages. First, it lessens the awful moral choice of saying the Syrian lives are less valuable than Libyan lives. Second, is responsive to the context of these sorts of repressions. Instead of placing all possible repressions against one another and saying which one, why not look at them sequentially in a time series. The West cannot do everything. Even if the West wasn’t in Iraq or Afghanistan, it would still be impossible to go everywhere there are truly awful repressions. Three, it helps lessen future repressions by drawing lines that other potential repressors will have to think about crossing, even if we couldn’t intervene anyway because we are overstretched from the first one.Ie, there is a potential signaling benefit for others from helping from the first mover.

So if we accept that R2P really is a global public good, and not just a western interventionist plot, then the issue of when to deploy it comes up. Using the time sequence logic sketched above seems like a good first cut, and a far better than saying R2P kicks in only when other more important, but unstated, interests, like oil or alliances, coincide. And Libya seems to meet that. There isn’t that much oil or other western interest there; Robert Gates admitted that much.

There’s No NATO ‘Crisis’: Muddling Through Libya is Good Enough



Besides the much-needed debate on the limits of the responsibility to protect (R2P), the Libyan mess has also provoked some good discussion of what NATO is supposed to do now, 20 years after the Cold War. It is a good question actually. Western publics are so accustomed to it, we just don’t even consider it much (such public opinion inertia is one reason it is still around). Conversely, the Chinese, and Russians especially, continue to suspect it as a ‘bloc’ that might somehow be used for future containment of them. Here and here are good articles Libya as a NATO-breaking event – a distinct possibility, especially if there is a push to extend NATO intervention into other Arab Spring revolts. Here and here are two defenses, that still struggle to define NATO’s military role.

My own sense is that NATO would be better off just openly admitting that it is now western military club for the general promotion of democracy and liberalism when its members feel so compelled. It is basically that ‘league of democracies’ idea, the formal proposal of which failed a few years ago. I understand that this is terribly messy, and it sounds pretty open-ended. But like the evolution of the R2P concept, just because it is open-ended, doesn’t mean the alliance needs to act on every possible scenario. We are learning how this works; there is no rush. Like the evolution of R2P, a more general mission for NATO would allow the members to pick-and-choose where interest, values, capabilities. Such ‘selective action’ is well-shown in the current Libya operation.

Yes, the Cold War brought a level of clarity to world politics that we all, disturbingly, seem to miss. But trying to force NATO into old boxes – ie, looking for a Soviet-style threat that brings ‘mission clarity’ or ‘threat definition’ is a fool’s errand by now. We really ought to know that 20 years after the Wall fell, and god help us if we place China into the Soviet ‘enemy box.’ As I argued earlier, the mess of crises of the future will be mostly ‘third world brushfires’ that like Somalia, Kosovo, or Rwanda. This should hardly be news to anyone who has followed the emergence of COIN in US military thinking in the last decade.

Such third world crises  require different force postures among NATO allies, yes, but they are hardly a reason to dissolve or disdain NATO. The most obvious evidence for this is George W Bush’s dismissal of NATO assistance in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush thought NATO too encumbering, sluggish, and political for the rapid action he sought. But then both operations went south, and the US has tried repeatedly to pull NATO in.

Anyone who follows NATO knows the endless ‘out-of-area’ discussion discussion: should NATO go out of its European area into places like Afghanistan? I have no definitive answer – probably, but selectively. But far more important is that NATO is working this out, albeit slowly. This is why I don’t understand the pundit contempt for NATO ‘dithering.’ What is the alternative? Do neo-cons, eg., really want the US do all this stuff alone, again? Didn’t we learn that hard lesson in the last decade? And to those who think NATO is just irrelevant, should we simply close it? NATO is the closest thing we have to a club of democracies. As such, it carries enormous moral weight in world politics, beyond the simple aggregate of its military capabilities (which are, to be sure, atrophying). Yes, NATO bickers incessantly, but any show of unanimity from organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or ASEAN is almost certainly farcical and repressed – a representation of solely elite, frequently dictatorial, views. By contrast, NATO, because it is democratic, signals far more credibly. So while it takes awhile for NATO to get its act together (dithering), it is vastly more meaningful when it does – even if partially, as in Libya. And NATO ‘interoperability’ reduces the coordination costs among the democracies. Finally, its existence is minimally costly. Members can still free-lance as the US did in Iraq and France just did in Ivory Coast. NATO does provide room for ‘coalitions of the willing.’

In sum, the costs of NATO are low – some meetings and a lot of hassle. But the benefits are high – a credible, somewhat united democratic voice in global affairs with enormous moral prestige, a functionally meaningful and capable alliance (unlike the ‘alliances’ between China and NK, or Russia and Belarus that look more like gangs than real alliances), and retained national room to maneuver.

So why complain about NATO so much? It is muddling through pretty well it seems to me. It is stumbling toward a new role to project democratic force on a selective basis. A more R2P focused NATO will re-assure China and Russia that they are not the alliance’ targets (even if they will call R2P ‘human rights imperialism’). What great benefit does anyone in the West (not just the US, but anyone) get if we close NATO?

The real problem with NATO is not the endlessly harped-on issue of its mission: I really can’t read anymore of these sorts of articles with variants of the title ‘the future of NATO.’ It should be blindingly obvious that in a messy post-Cold War, post-colonial world, NATO’s mission focus will correspondingly be unclear (beyond basic member security). But so is the mission of the UN, ASEAN, and maybe even the EU (!), so this is not uncommon in generalist, big-theme international organizations. The real issue is member capabilities – specifically the precipitous decline of the European democracies to project power independently of huge US intervention. The well-known ‘free-rider problem’ debilitates the alliance no matter what its mission. This is a problem in Asia too (although the SKs try harder than Japan, to be fair.) The real issue for NATO is not its irrelevance – in world of ‘brushfires,’ it will still have relevance as Libya just showed – it is the willingness of members to provide resources.

More on the Benghazi Massacre Counterfactual; Syria; plus some Media











So this is a bits and pieces post.

1. Benghazi:

In the last few weeks, the issue of whether a massacre would have happened in Benghazi has a emerged as a major empirical divide between those who counseled intervention in Libya and those who did not. My own sense is that a massacre was a likely possibility, so I reluctantly supported intervention. My earlier thoughts on this are here, here, and here. Here is a very good review of the reasons, and here are Walt’s thoughts that the purported massacre was a bogus rationale.

The last link is Walt’s latest rejoinder. I still am not convinced. As I argued on Sunday, it is a mistake to suggest that Gaddafi’s behavior in the other towns is an indicator – the bloodbath will come after he wins, not while the war is raging (it is a diversion of critical resources). Also, I think Walt’s figure on Benghazi’s population (650k) is low. That city is now swollen with battlefield refugees, and by voting with their feet to go to Benghazi, not Tripoli, they have signaled their sympathy for the rebels. It is hardly a stretch to suggest that many of these people would be targeted for revenge killings. Finally, 650k is still quite a sizeable number. Most of Libya’s cities and towns are a lot smaller.

Walt does make the important point that we must think about just how many people must die or be threatened to meet an R2P threshold (dicsussed below for the Syrian case too). I admit I don’t really know the right answer to that one; that is an awfully uncomfortable moral proposition – albeit one that R2P advocates must answer somehow. My own sense is that Benghazi would not have been Rwanda, but Srebrenica. So Walt is probably right that there would not have been 100k dead and that such numbers were scare tactics. Maybe figures like that were used by human rights groups to morally bully western decision-makers into intervention. But still, Srebrenica was pretty god-awful. It’s very hard to figure this one out…

2. Syria:

Besides this blog, I write for another service now running a scenario on Arab Spring in Syria. As with my commenters on my Libya posts here, I have been pressed about applying the Libyan logic to the brewing Syrian mess. Here are my thoughts:

Without a UN mandate and local Arab endorsement (ideally from the Arab League) – as was the case in Libya – a Libyan-style western intervention option would be widely viewed as re-run of the Iraq War. The Libyan intervention decision was already fraught enough – both Germany and Turkey in NATO opposed it. Only the growing evidence of a looming bloodbath in Benghazi forced the West’s hand in Libya. To run that scenario again, and so soon, would likely split NATO yet again (as it was over Iraq 2 and Libya), and the Chinese and Russians, and the other BRICS too, would howl in protest.The only possible way an unsought NATO intervention might occur is if Israel were seriously considering intervening, which might spark a local war with Iran involved as well. NATO would then preempt that. Beyond that, an unrequested NATO intervention would alienate the planet, split NATO , and dump yet another Arab/Mulsim nation-building problem on the hands of the West, complete with Iranian meddling and all the disastrous, thoroughly foreseeable consequences that would flow from all that.

Abstaining from taking action, and waiting for an international call for action is almost certainly the right way to proceed, at this point. Everyone knows the US/West is dramatically overextended now, with huge budget deficits and debt, with a ‘neo-imperial’ reputation (rightly or wrongly) tarnished by the Iraq War. This means intervention can only be a last ditch measure, as it was in Benghazi to stop what look liked an impending massacre akin to Srebrenica. If the current Assad crackdown devolves into a major civil conflict in which thousands face annihilation, as they did in the 1982 Hama massacre, non-intervention will have to be re-evaluated. But the ‘responsbility to protect’ (R2P) threshold must stay somewhat high (Walt’s point above), otherwise the West could get chain-ganged into multiple human rights intervnetions that will increasingly look to Arab audiences like neo-imperialism. Libya was different because the Arab League, and UN, provided local moral cover, as did the clear warning alarms from human rights NGOs about a possible slaughter. I doubt that will happen again, and the Libyan intervention also is not going too well. So unless genuinely brutal suppression is verifiably imminent, intervention carries huge risk to be avoided. As I have argued before, the West can’t do everything, which leaves one in the uncomfortable position of helping the Libyans more than the Syrians, because the Libyans moved first. That feels terribly inadequate, I agree. Nothing about this Arab Spring is getting any easier…

3. Some Media:

A shortened, more professionalized version of my essay on the comparison of German and Korean unifcation was posted by the East Asia Forum here. The East Asia Forum is a good site on Asia-Pacific politics and economics; like Foreign Policy, it mixes scholarship and policy thinking into short, digestible presentations. I wholeheartedly recommend the site to readers of this blog.

Also, I spoke on a local radio station on Korea-Japan relations – what a tangle. Please go here if you are interested. Scroll down the page and click on the big green button with Korean lettering. My comments begin around 16:15.

Can We Please Stop Denying that We Prevented a Massacre in Benghazi?


The backlash to the Libyan intervention has begun, and to be sure, it is a controversial mess. My own support was lukewarm; like the president, I felt my hand was forced by the likelihood that Qaddafi would butcher thousands of people had he taken Benghazi two weeks ago. I feel like the president gave a good-enough rationale for the intervention, and western governments are trying hard to avoid getting pulled into an Iraq-style nation-building mess. I realize that ‘good-enough’ feels like an awful cop-out when it comes to war, but the world is pretty d— messy, and the acrimony of the debate tells me that no one really knows what we should do (let’s all at least admit that). Applying Clausewitzian-Powell Doctrine benchmarks – overwhelming force for a quick victory and a quick, clear exit – fits poorly on the emerging tangle of developing world crises where the issue is not a huge, militarized threat to western security (the Nazis or USSR), but a mix of mass humanitarian slaughter (Rwanda), terrorism (Afghanistan), piracy (Somalia), ethnic cleansing (Balkans), criminal takeovers (parts of Mexico and Columbia), etc. The problem, as Kaplan notes, is the semi-anarchic level of governance in much of the developing world, a problem Barnett tagged years ago as the ‘integrating the gap.’ As I argued last week, imposing Clausewitzian standards on intervention in such conflicts means that we will, then, almost never intervene – as we did not in Rwanda or Darfur.

This strikes me as an analytically clear benchmark for US intervention or not; often tagged as ‘realism,’ it is best associated in international relations theory with Walt and Layne. The problem is that, as critics of realism have argued since Mencian criticisms of Sun Tzu more than two millennia ago, it feels so very cold and heartless. Realists have fought this charge for years. In the end, not intervening in Kosovo, Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, Libya, etc. means that many people may die (or , in fact, have died), and this pulls on the heartstrings of anyone who thinks that the world should be a less brutal place and that if help is possible, there is a moral case to, if not always intervene, at least debate it and possibly do something. All this is captured in the debate over the responsibility to protect (R2P) that has exploded over the Libyan war.

It seems to me therefore that non-interventionists must defend a position that includes mass butchery as a likely outcome, yet still argue that we should not go in. For obvious reasons, no one really wants to say that in print. In fact the only serious figure I know of to unequivocally state, after the fact, that we still should not have gone into Rwanda, despite all the carnage, is John Bolton. So it strikes me that the current effort to downplay the likelihood of a massacre in Benghazi is driven more by the desire of non-interventionists to avoid the moral posture of having to admit that thousands of bodies, rapes, dead children, torture would nonetheless be ‘ok;’ as Stewart says in the clip on above Bolton, “When someone says would you have stopped the genocide, just say yes, just say yes!” I would still like to hear that case made more vigorously from the non-interventionists; it is analytically required to support the non-interventionist position, and to duck it by disputing the possibility is an analytical and moral dodge.

So consider the following on Benghazi, which I believe forces this issue:

 1. Qaddafi is a known brutal tyrant, with similarly brutal ‘buddies’ like Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), (now deceased) Hafez al Assad (Syria), and Omar el Bashir (Sudan) – all guilty of their own mass slaughters. It seems likely that moving in such circles, which comes at a high price of international respectability, means you don’t care too much about how many of your people will hang. It’s par for the course for these guys. I don’t think anyone disputes the reasonable possibility that Qaddafi would do what his buddy tyrants have also done in similar situations.

2. He and his family went on TV and said they intended a slaughter. His son Saif said there would be ‘rivers of blood in the streets.’ Qaddafi spoke of hunting the rebels ‘like rats, alley by alley.’ The Qaddafis’ various media spokesmen talked in similarly harsh, if less openly explosive ways too. To be sure, they may have been lying. Leaders lie all the time. Non-interventionists argue that this sort of talk was meant to deter other Libyans from joining the rebellion. Perhaps, but the rebellion had already started when Qaddafi started these terrifying ravings. As Pape notes, something like 75% of the country had already risen up against him, so there really wasn’t anyone left to deter. The whole country had already lined up on one side or the other.

Mead calls Qaddafi the ‘Great Loon,’ so maybe he is just too bonkers to know what he is saying. But Post says Qaddafi is more rational than we think. If so, then Gaddafi surely knew that talking like that would attract global attention immediately, and certainly Saif, who lived and was educated extensively in the West (complete with a PhD from the London School of Economics), knew that ‘rivers of blood’ would dramatically raise the likelihood of a western intervention. Despite these obvious ‘audience costs’ in the West (the ‘CNN effect’), they said this stuff anyway. That tells me they meant it.

3. I don’t buy the idea that because Qaddafi forces didn’t engage in mass slaughters in other re-captured cities, that suggests they would not have done so in Benghazi. First, the cities between Tripoli and Beghazi aren’t really ‘cities’ at all. There are only about 6 million people in Libya total, with half of them in just Benghazi and Tripoli. The rest of Libya’s ‘cities’ are more like towns, with Misrata, e.g., having only around 300 k. Further, the civil war has emptied much of the middle coastal strip between Tripoli and Benghazi. Those with rebel sympathies have been moving east for weeks. That means Benghazi is swollen with regime opponents, while the coastal middle towns are emptying. In short, the regime’s greatest opponents are concentrated in Libya’s second city, so the Qaddafi forces’ behavior in small, almost empty places like Brega (15.k) or Ras Lanuf (12.5 k) don’t indicate well what Gaddafi’s behavior in a large, rebel-swollen metropolis like Benghazi would have been.

Second, the towns aren’t really ‘captured.’ The civil war has see-sawed back and forth regularly for weeks now. I recall hearing one CCN reporter saying Ajdabiya has exchanged hand 6 times in as many weeks. The point being, that even as Qaddafi retakes places, his people don’t really have time to ‘hunt them like rats.’ Even mass slaughters take some planning, and his fighters are better needed to keep pushing east. Again, the critical difference would have been the fall of Benghazi. Because that is the ‘capital’ of the resistance, its fall would have likely ended the revolt. Qaddafi would then have the time and political order necessary to begin the re-consolidation of his position. That would be the time to launch his own version of the Hama massacre – after he has won and taken the rebel base.

For another view on why massacre was likley and how that forced action, read this excellent piece.

I may be wrong, and I open to counter-arguments. And of course, we will never know. This is counterfactual reasoning at its most controversial. But the likelihood of a massacre seemed pretty high, at least reasonably high enough to cross the R2P threshold. We stood aside during some truly horrifying atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, and our sense of shame plays a major role in this intervention. Non-interventionists need to address that straight-on, and not duck it by disputing the counterfactual itself. It would take extraordinary (and, honestly, rather disturbing) sang-froid to argue that doing nothing in the midst of butchery is the right thing to do.