Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

19 March 2011

Is Libya Lost?

Has the mad dog out-foxed the West again? Recent reports from Libya suggest that possibility.

There appears to be fighting in Benghazi, and the rebels already may have pulled back to a small enclave along the coast. If these reports are true, Qaddafi may already have won.

The reason is simple. Defending the rebels from the air always depended on them occupying a distinct territory of their own that they could defend. Unlike Afghanistan, Libya is a desert. Its terrain facilitates taking out any armored advance, or even air attacks, from one separate territory to another.

But if Qaddafi’s troops are indeed inside Benghazi, that’s a whole different story. Bombing or strafing them would risk killing the rebels with “friendly fire,” not to mention innocent civilians. And wiping out Qaddafi’s equipment and troops in other areas when they have already won would seem a mere spiteful act―the type of thing that Qaddafi himself would do and that Saddam actually did.

It is possible that Qaddafi knows this. Maybe his fighters inside Benghazi are a mere fifth column, instructed to make a lot of noise with few forces and little equipment, so as to give the impression that Benghazi is up for grabs. In that case, a no-fly zone and limited air-to-ground attacks might still work, if begun within twenty-four hours.

But if Benghazi really is up for grabs, the civil war may be over for all practical purposes. Then our only remaining task would be one of moral obligation: smuggling as many rebels as possible out of Libya before Qaddafi can massacre them.

What went wrong? Mostly, the US dithered too long. We also may have sought authorization from the wrong place. Why ask the UN Security Council for permission to intervene in a local dispute? The Saudis didn’t ask it to approve their intervention in Bahrain. Maybe after the Arab League requested a no-fly zone, we should have pressed it harder to set up one of its own, immediately, with our help.

But maybe everyone was just bluffing. I would hate to think that, and so would the Arab street, which probably still hasn’t forgotten Western betrayal of the Marsh Arabs and their slaughter by Saddam.

If our attempt to intervene in Libya is indeed a debacle, only one American will have come out of it smelling like a rose. That’s Susan Rice, our UN Ambassador. As it turns out, it was she, not Secretary Clinton, who got the UN resolution in record time. Why? She had a draft resolution ready, in advance, before anyone asked for one, and she pressed her diplomatic advantage to get the toughest wording possible.

That sort of ever-prepared competence used to characterize Americans generally. Now it is notable enough to merit special commendation.

Rice is indeed a special case. From Rwanda to Darfur, she has always worked tirelessly to protect innocents from needless slaughter. And in all things she has been polite but hard as nails, just as she was in wringing an extraordinarily tough authorization for intervention from a divided Security Council.

I would put her right after Secdef Gates in terms of sheer competence. Her values are old-fashioned American: her toughness sits on the side of justice and mercy. She is one of the best we’ve got. When Secretary Clinton leaves, Rice should be on the short list to replace her.

But apart from Rice’s role in it, the story of Qaddafi’s win will be another dismal chapter in Libya’s history and our own. We will have abandoned and betrayed rebels who relied on our help, squandered a golden opportunity to strengthen cooperation with France and the Arab League, given a vicious tyrant even more reason to plot against us, and embarrassed ourselves as indecisive and inept before the entire world.

Maybe this is why China, pleading respect for national sovereignty, has a firm policy against intervening in other states’ affairs. It’s not that intervening is never warranted. It’s just that doing it effectively is too hard. But whatever lessons we learn, if Qaddafi wins simply by pressing his timing advantage, our desultory attempts to influence Libya’s future will not have marked our finest hour.

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