In the Arena

Libya ReBooted

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Max Boot offers a classic example of neoconservative shoot-first, think-later reasoning on the op-ed page of the New York Times today. Boot, who is honest enough to admit some belated second thoughts about Libya, has reflexively favored military intervention “for weeks,” he says. But now he worries that the air campaign may not be enough:

Will the rebels be able to root out Qaddafi loyalists? If not, are we prepared to use Western ground forces? So far President Obama has ruled out that option, which runs the danger of a protracted stalemate. Colonel Qaddafi could simply cling to power, while international support for the whole operation frays.

Even if Colonel Qaddafi steps down — an outcome that I believe we must now seek but that hasn’t been declared as a formal aim — the problems hardly end…For one, the country has had an active Islamist movement that has sent many fighters to Iraq. The collapse of Colonel Qaddafi’s police state would mean greater freedom for all Libyans, including jihadists who could try to instigate an insurgency as they did in Iraq.

The danger is compounded by Libya’s tribalism. Behind the thin facade of a modern state lies a long, seething history of rivalries among 140 tribes and clans, about whom we know little. Colonel Qaddafi has kept them in check with a combination of brutal repression and generous payoffs. Once he’s gone, the tribes could fight one another for the spoils of Libya’s oil industry; as in Iraq, some could form alliances with Al Qaeda.

Ground forces, yikes! And as for those tribes, some of us have been warning for, uh, weeks that this is a tribal war, and different from the revolution in Egypt that preceded it. Indeed, David Kirkpatrick has the latest installment of the tribal complexities in the Times today. Boot’s solution is mission-creep:

To avert the worst, we must work with the nascent opposition government, the National Transitional Council, to develop a plan for a post-Qaddafi state. It is also vitally important that Western special forces, Arab soldiers or both begin arming and training the rebel fighters. They must be able to not only help toss out Colonel Qaddafi but also maintain law and order in the new Libya.

But who and what is the National Transitional Council? Kirkpatrick provides the non-answer:

The behavior of the fledgling rebel government in Benghazi so far offers few clues to the rebels’ true nature. Their governing council is composed of secular-minded professionals — lawyers, academics, businesspeople — who talk about democracy, transparency, human rights and the rule of law. But their commitment to those principles is just now being tested as they confront the specter of potential Qaddafi spies in their midst, either with rough tribal justice or a more measured legal process.

This reminds me of the high-ranking Bush national security official who assured me that Hamas was headed in the right direction in 2006 because its slate of candidates for the Gaza city council was composed of “doctors, lawyers and engineers.” I mean, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man, is a doctor…and it’s usually the guilt-ridden upper middle class professionals who turn toward radicalism.

Boot concludes:

None of this is meant to imply that I have suddenly changed my mind and decided that we should have stayed out of Libya. This is a worthwhile intervention for both strategic and humanitarian reasons. But the Obama administration must be alive to the numerous dangers that lurk down this path, and must make plans to deal with them.

Well, that’s nice. But I wonder: what are the strategic reasons? Libya doesn’t have a scintilla of the strategic importance that Egypt does–unless it turns into a terrorist state, a possibility that Boot now concedes may be a consequence of the west’s military action. Even the humanitarian reasons are questionable–are the casualties attendant on a battle between tribes necessarily genocide? They were in Rwanda–but where’s the evidence that Libya was an incipient Rwanda?

And then, there’s that last sentence: If things go wrong, it’ll be Obama’s fault–no doubt because he didn’t send in the ground troops. I do agree with Boot on two issues: now that we’re in, I hope this operation goes well (but I also hope that it is limited to a no-fly zone and creeps no further)–and even though I admire Obama’s intent to take a back seat in the coalition, if things go wrong, it will be his fault for being diverted into this peripheral conflict.