March 14, 2011

For Intervention in Libya: Two Views

It's not as fun to poke holes in arguments for military intervention in Libya when they are advanced by people like Anne-Marie Slaughter and Eliot Cohen, who should basically be the role models for any aspiring foreign policy wonk out there. Presidential administrations are mostly staffed by boring people who have never published or said anything remotely controversial. Slaughter and Cohen, by contrast, are bona fide public intellectuals who somehow managed to serve in high-level positions in the Department of State without ever compromising their personalities or intellects.

They are also both far too sanguine about military intervention in Libya. Here's Cohen:

There was momentum a few weeks ago as one town after another fell to
enemies of the regime. A stream of defections, betrayals and surrenders
seemed to spell Gadhafi's doom. The time to intervene is when a small
push can have the greatest psychological effect, even if military
planners would prefer to do it only after orchestrating a three-week
air-defense suppression campaign.

Eliot Cohen is a smart enough scholar to where he probably has case studies to support his argument, but if we are to trust what Cohen writes here, we have to believe that Eliot Cohen understands, without any prior specialization in the peoples and politics of Libya, the decision-making calculus of the Gadhafi family and their associates. But one of Libya's defining features is how little we know about it. Even the smartest North Africa specialists I know admit to not understanding regime dynamics and the actors in a country that has been largely closed off to the world for the past four decades. Why is Eliot Cohen so confident he is right and that the Obama Administration could have done more?

And here is Slaughter:

Gen. Wesley K. Clark argues that “Libya doesn’t sell much oil to the United States” and that while Americans “want to support democratic movements in the region,” we are already doing that in Iraq and Afghanistan. Framing this issue in terms of oil is exactly what Arab populations and indeed much of the world expect, which is why they are so cynical about our professions of support for democracy and human rights. Now we have a chance to support a real new beginning in the Muslim world — a new beginning of accountable governments that can provide services and opportunities for their citizens in ways that could dramatically decrease support for terrorist groups and violent extremism. It’s hard to imagine something more in our strategic interest.

Slaughter has an expansive conception of U.S. interests and is seemingly not very descriminate in how or where the U.S. should intervene militarily. Reading her op-ed, I found myself asking, "Well, okay, then why not intervene militarily in Sudan? Or Congo?" If Libya -- which is in the midst of a civil war, mind -- meets the criteria for military intervention, what other countries merit military intervention?

Ross Douthat noted in a column today (which referred back to this blog, actually) how remarkable it is that the same left-right coalition that supported the invasion of Iraq is now beating the president up over not intervening in Libya. I'm not sure why we should be surprised by this. Approximately .5% of U.S. citizens served in Iraq, minus the ~4,500 or so who did not make it home.* So we should not be surprised that Iraq has not had an effect on the willingness of smart policy intellectuals to commit U.S. troops to open-ended military interventions in the Arabic-speaking world.

My sense, though, is that the average American has a much more limited conception of U.S. interests abroad than Slaughter. Whenever I travel to speak about Afghanistan, for example, I hear the frustration from tax-payers. When I go home, only my grandmother -- who, bless her, sent two of her three grandsons to fight in Iraq and served as a WAVE in WWII -- doesn't ask me when the war in Afghanistan will end.

I would also tell Slaughter that if the United States really wanted to support "accountable governments that can provide services and opportunities for
their citizens in ways that could dramatically decrease support for
terrorist groups and violent extremism," then we should be helping to reform the security services of Egypt's interior ministry and also working to ensure the referrenda and elections that will take place over the next six months are conducted in a free and fair manner. None of that involves military intervention, but as a country of 82 million people, Egypt's transition to a post-Mubarak order is more important for both democratic values and U.S. interests than what takes place in Libya.


In terms of no-fly zones, which would likely not much alter the military balance between Gadhafi and the rebels, I highly recommend this analysis from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (.pdf) on what a no-fly zone might cost.** They present their analysis with both the initial cost listed as well as the weekly cost of maintenance. At the end, though, they ask several key questions policy-makers need to answer before we decide on whether or not to enact a no-fly zone:

  1. What is the end-state of the Libyan conflict?
  2. How would a no-fly zone achieve this end state?
  3. Which nation(s) should take the lead in establishing a no-fly zone and through what international organization, if any, would such an operation be authorized?
  4. Over what timeframe would coalition forces be expected to maintain a no-fly zone?
  5. Would a no-fly zone be accompanied by additional measures to assist Libyan rebels and civilians,
    such as supplying limited military aid, intelligence data, or food and medical supplies?
  6. Under what rules of engagement would US and coalition forces operate?
  7. What legal authorization would such an operation require?
  8. Finally, what are the anticipated costs, in personnel and equipment, of establishing and sustaining a no-fly zone?

These are the questions I would also like to hear smart security studies scholars like Cohen and Slaughter start answering if they really want us to intervene in Libya. I am not categorically against military intervention in Libya, but I am deeply, deeply wary of rushing into it. I am not at all sure that "doing nothing" is not the wisest course here in part because I'm quite conservative about what we can expect military force to achieve and because -- in an era when we can't even agree to scrap together $46.5 million to keep USIP in business -- I am not sure the benefits of a military intervention make sense in terms of the costs, both human and financial.

*Really and truly, I'm really not trying to crassly wave the bloody flag here, but in addition to the $1 trillion we spent in Iraq, I think it is necessary to mention the human cost as well. (Click through to that link to see the numbers of civilian casualties and other coalition casualties. I don't mean to suggest they are not important as well.)

**Good for Todd Harrison and Zack Cooper. This is a good example of what happens when a think tank does its job to inform the debate over policy.