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

21 March 2011

Libya for the Libyans


One thing gets lost in all the lamenting from the left about “another war.” Whatever happens in Libya, Libyans will decide.

The reasons are three. First, there will be no Western ground troops in Libya. That’s not because the UN resolution forbids them, although it does. Nor is it because the President promised, although he did.

No Western nation will put ground troops in Libya because what happened in Iraq is still fresh in memory. We lost over 4,400 troops killed, plus tens of thousands maimed and wounded. We caused hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths and made millions of refugees. And we triggered an unholy civil war before finally, by paying the Sunnis and promising to leave, managing to convince a critical mass of Iraqis that we really had no intention of staying forever.

No one―not the President, not Secdef Gates, not any of our generals, and not any of their foreign counterparts―wants to repeat that experience. So the promise not to engage in ground combat in Libya will be enforced not by law or by politics, but by hard experience and practical necessity.

The second reason follows from the first. Without ground troops, we Westerners will simply lack the power to determine who wins. Libyans themselves will have to do that. They will do it by engaging in both war and politics, which, as Von Clausewitz noted some time ago, are two sides to the same coin.

If the rebels are smart, they will (with Western help) make some gains on the ground. Then they will try hard to co-opt Qaddafi’s smarter supporters into joining them. If they are not so smart, they will have to win control of Libya entirely by force of arms.

But whatever happens from now on, the rebels will have to deserve their gains. All the Western air forces appear to have done is give them a chance not to be slaughtered by vastly superior firepower in the hands of a madman.

The third reason why Libyans will decide their own future is that we in the West just don’t have a clue. I flattered Secretary Clinton and our State Department by characterizing them as getting to know the rebels. But, in barely a week, they didn’t have time to do that.

The trio of Clinton, Rice and Powers apparently prevailed in our executive councils on humanitarian and practical ground alone. If we hadn’t helped the rebels immediately and massively, they would be corpses or refugees now, Qaddafi’s rule would be engraved in stone until his natural death, and no one in the Middle East would henceforth pay any attention to our prattle about building democracy by toppling dictators. So we apparently made a decision to intervene on the spur of the moment―nearly too late―without having more than the faintest idea who the rebels are.

So everything now depends on them. Qaddafi condemned himself. He had a chance to act with some semblance of justice and political skill. But instead he spewed lies, threats and venom. He slaughtered as many of his countrymen as possible who would not submit to his absolute rule. All the rebels have to do is come up with leaders having the barest minimum of administrative skill and some rude conception of the practical advantages of justice and mercy. Then Libya will have far better leaders than Qaddafi.

In the end, that fact probably mattered to the West as much as the oil. With oil prices rising and going nowhere but up for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that Libya should have enough money to build a much better nation for all concerned. All the rebels need do is pick a leader who understands that, and who is broad-minded enough not to keep all the gains for himself and his tribe. Then they will have a political winner. If I were in our State Department, I would help the rebels start their search by vetting the two rival sheiks who reportedly allied their tribes despite Qaddafi’s attempt to divide them with both threats and blandishments.

Our and our allies’ military forces appear to have done a superb job in unwinding a conquest that was nearly a fait accompli. And they appear to have done so with an absolute minimum of civilian casualties, thanks in part to improvements in smart weapons, targeting and command and control since the Iraq War. They deserve enormous credit for their quickness, agility and professionalism.

But now, under their ever-vigilant umbrella, the ball must roll back to the diplomats’ court. We have to push, goad, cajole and help the rebels to pick one or several good leaders, begin unifying the tribes of the east, and then begin the delicate task of undermining Qaddafi’s support with promises of a better day ahead. I remain convinced that the most important weapon in that battle will be the telephone (or comparable electronic communicator), aided by local and foreign intelligence and local contacts that only Libyans can have and use.

We made an unholy mess of Iraq for several years. We triggered a civil war that nearly destroyed the country. We got out of that mess by the skin of our teeth, plus Al Qaeda’s strategic blunders and its lack of any policy other than kill, kill, kill.

Now we have a chance to show how to do it right. We have overwhelming military force, which appears to have stopped a slaughter and given the rebels a chance. Now we must nurture them and let them find their own way, however slow, awkward and frustrating doing so may be.

No more Chalabis. No more Karzais. No more leaders anointed by the West. If we help Libyans find the best within them, we may yet be proud of the result of this very risky enterprise.

But to do that, we have to find the wisdom in our hearts to understand that tribal Arab Muslims can be good people, too, even if they don’t speak English. Job one now is to find, nurture and support the best among them, with money, arms and international diplomacy as necessary.

In that job, the trio of Clinton, Rice and Powers will be instrumental. For they have already demonstrated an understanding of justice and mercy and the personal toughness to apply them.

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