April 01, 2011

Messages From a Libyan Intervention

Pundits around the world have been debating the meaning of the US intervention in Libya since the first bombs began falling last week. 

Does Libya mark a new direction in US foreign policy? Has the United States staked out new redlines for dictators and autocrats? Does the US now embrace the principle of "responsibility to protect" those at risk in the world? Is Libya an example of a new "Obama Doctrine"?

In truth, the answer is no to all of the above. What we are seeing is the slowly emerging shape of an Obama Middle East policy and a glimpse into his decision-making at war.

President Obama has been painstaking in describing the Libyan mission as a "one off". In his carefully-worded speech on Tuesday night, he noted: "America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs." Rebels of the world, take note. 

Obama's war

Obama also outlined the uncommon circumstances that brought his decision to launch this mission across the finish line. The list is extraordinary: insistent requests from his European allies, entreaties and pledges of support from the Arab League, and pleas from the endangered Libyan opposition, all of which were finally capped by passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.   Noteworthy too is the fact that "Operation Odyssey Dawn" is Obama's first military operation launched wholly of his own accord. He did not inherit conflict in Libya as he did in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was not forced to make this choice, pinned down by the actions of his predecessors, or served with no other options.  

This was Obama's first truly independent military decision as Commander-in-Chief – and he decided to go to war.

Both Obama's visage and language in his Tuesday speech conveyed how apparently conflicted he remains with decisions about war and the use of force. This core truth is reflected in the tortuous verbal contortions by which his spokesmen have sought to avoid the term "war" in relation to the Libyan adventure. But at the end of the day, this was the president's decision, and his alone.

While a no-fly zone and even a broader air campaign can present the comforting illusion of bloodless coercion, reality looks much different on the ground. Out in the Libyan sands, gunfire and bombs, wrecked convoys, burning jeeps and smashed bunkers look an awful lot like war. 

Yet the unique nature of this operation does not detract from the important lessons it offers. These fall short of aggregating into an "Obama Doctrine", but are worthy of our attention nonetheless. 

US power 

First, America's adversaries should take note: despite the United States being committed to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with nearly 150,000 troops on the ground, the United States had plenty of muscle left to launch a major military operation 6500km from its borders on short notice – and achieve all of its initial objectives in less than 72 hours.

Absent the United States, a complex operation on this timeline would severely test the combined capabilities of the remaining top few militaries of the world. The "United States as global power" is not just a worn-out bumper sticker.

Second, Democratic US presidents use military power much like Republican US presidents. US security interests trump domestic policies, budget woes, and political fringe elements. Perceptions about the strength and resilience of US power and values in an increasingly disorderly world also matter. One can argue about the merits of choosing this particular intervention, but it convincingly dispels worries about Obama's aversion to the use of military power – and offers some implicit rebuttals to notions of an America in decline on the world stage.

Third, autocrats need to clean up their act. Friends, foes, or fence-sitters with ties to the United States would be wise to read the tea leaves of US behaviour over the last three months of the "Arab Spring". The United States will artfully hedge its bets in this volatile environment. 

While the United States will not abruptly throw its less-than-democratic partners overboard, it is not going to continue to support them if they refuse to listen to demands for reform by their people, and crush internal dissent. The United States will also be quietly reaching out to democratic opposition movements across the region to ensure it engages with all camps. The message to autocratic regimes in the region is clear: Reform now before the castle walls crumble from within.

Unique convergence

Finally, would-be rebels need to assess the Libyan intervention very carefully. "Caution" should remain the ultimate watchword in attempting to draw any precedents from this unlikely mission. While the United States has long been an avid promoter of democracy around the world, that promise will never translate into unqualified military support for every potential rebellion brewing under the myriad autocratic regimes across the globe. Libya remains a case study of precisely one. Other rebel groups that project this image on their own situations may be taking a grave risk.

The Libyan rebels benefited from a remarkable convergence of interests and support – broad international and regional backing, highly publicised human rights abuses by Gaddafi, and a quick and comprehensive UN resolution. To describe this convergence as "unique" is not exaggeration. 

Whatever its label, the Libyan conflict now looks considerably more complex than when it started. The perplexing human dynamics that make war the "province of fear, uncertainty and chance" as described two hundred years ago by military theorist Carl von Clausewitz have made their presence felt once more.

This conflict in Libya is now above all else a battle of wills between thinking, unpredictable human beings. And the United States, despite the president's fervent wishes, will remain firmly the de facto leader of the coalition prosecuting this conflict until its conclusion. 

The past two weeks in Libya have allowed the world to peek inside the mind of this president at war. The Obama administration's policy on the new Middle East is beginning to take shape, but only time and its reactions to the unpredictable arc of coming events will reveal its true form.