Saturday, March 19, 2011

Perspective on the pros and cons of intervention in Libya

My friend Josh, who is well to the right of me on the US political spectrum but whose opinion on military matters I respect, offers these thoughts:
If you're asking if imposing a no-fly zone is technically feasible, I think that a review of official and unofficial statements will demonstrate that the answer is yes. Technologically we have the capability, and in terms of force commitments if you look at how the forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are broken down, you will see the Air Force and Navy have a far lower fraction of their combat power committed to those theaters than the Army and Marine Corps.

So if you look at the cautionary statements from people close to the department of defense, I think you will observe that they either state or at least fail to deny that enforcing a no-fly zone is feasible. The concerns that have been raised from that quarter appear to mostly focus on 1) realizing that enforcing a no-fly zone necessarily involves extensive suppression of air defense systems, and so a no-fly zone by itself is hardly "bloodless" on the Libyan side, and 2) what happens if a no-fly zone proves ineffective. At that point more of the US/NATO/UN's (or all of the above) credibility is at stake, so the pressure to intervene more extensively will be greater at that point. It is basically a "slippery slope" argument. So if I were to take a totally neutral position on whether we SHOULD be willing to go that far, I would still be concerned that we decide up-front if we are so willing, and take actions accordingly. For example, try to prepare for a less-ignominious "out" if we are not willing to take further escalation.
Josh goes on:
Next, SHOULD we be involved. Again, I'm not going to state an unequivocal position here. Certainly there are statements of caution from Robert Gates and others, including some previously known as "hawks" about our ability to wage three wars simultaneously. Well, really the bulk of our manpower commitment in Iraq is winding down, but that does not eliminate the "overstretched" argument. Many of these cautionary arguments also cite a poor track record of US involvement in other countries' civil wars, most recently Iraq. I personally believe the Iraq war was successful, but clearly at a much higher cost than initially expected, and so again without taking a definite position I am glad to see more voices raising these questions so that we make a better informed decision.

As you might guess, I am less swayed than you [Zachary Drake] might be by more general anti-war arguments, but similarly those sorts of arguments tend to go straight to the core of a person's moral outlook and I find those sorts of things pointless to debate, so I will set that aside. However, even a pacifist should give thought to this next point:

On the "pro" side in favor of stronger intervention, I think you have to look at the Libya situation in context of the current Middle East uprisings. In Egypt and in Tunisia, the incumbent leaders faced with internal political dissent did not respond with overwhelming force, were pressured by the US and other nations to make concessions and/or step down, and ended up being overthrown. In Libya, the leader responded with overwhelming force and this far has faced condemnation and sanctions, but nothing truly painful to him. Meanwhile in Bahrain and Yemen, the incumbents are similarly using significant amounts of force, and so far are holding their positions. We should be concerned as to whether the message other despots are getting is "when pressured, you might as well use overwhelming force against your own people, because you have nothing to lose." On the other hand, if Ben-Ali and Mubarak end up out of power but safe, and Ghadafy ends up dead or forcibly overthrown and arrested, that sends the opposite message. So if one is truly concerned about innocent lives being lost, there is an argument that forceful moves against Ghadafy will save lives in the longer run, and result in less total violence.

On the other hand, going back to the previous point, there is a risk of just the opposite as well - that with foreign intervention there is a broader and/or longer war.

So to summarize, "Hawks" in this context need to be very clear about what level of intervention they really support, and what happens if that level is insufficient to achieve results. "Doves" need to seriously consider what a lack of decisive action against Ghadafy will mean in the longer run for other popular, democratic revolts.
I like Josh's last paragraph: I would be much more comfortable with US military intervention if I thought we had the political ability to stop and cut our losses even if our initial interventions did not turn out as planned. But the unbearability of "losing," or the fear that your political opponents will make hay about any perceived "loss" or "defeat," makes the slippery slope argument pretty compelling to me.

As a separate issue, I have the fear that the rest of the world is using the United States to do its dirty work for them. We don't know yet who is actually going to be doing the attacking, but I get the feeling it's mainly going to be US with some small contributions by others. Maybe I'm wrong, but there seems to be a great eagerness to let us be users of violence. And when things go wrong and innocents die, as so often happens in war, who will be holding the moral bag? Or if the rebels use our air power as cover to perpetrate revenge killings against Qaddafi-loyal areas, will we then be responsible for stopping that, too?

I do hope people in the administration are gaming this out, coming up with contingency plans, and preparing for disasters. This whole thing has a rushed and seat-of-the-pants feel to it. Which is partly driven by the speed of events, but partly because I worry there is not a coherent policy behind our actions.

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