Assessing Libya

by Stanley Kurtz

A full assessment of our war in Libya will have to wait until we see what emerges from Qaddafi’s long shadow. The moment of his dictatorship’s collapse, however, calls for a preliminary appraisal.

It’s a relief and a satisfaction to see the fall of a man who stood for so long as an enemy to America and Americans. Qaddafi terrorized his own people and gutted his country’s civil society in the service of his dictatorship. Libya and the world will likely pay a price for that for some time. Yet to see the Qaddafi era pass is a moment for celebration.

America put its credibility and prestige on the line in Libya, and we have fortunately escaped the potential disaster of seeing this intervention fail — although our escape has been far too narrow for comfort. Just a month ago, it looked as though the Libya campaign was nearly lost. With a stalemate on the ground, Ramadan looming, and NATO authorization expiring soon thereafter, victory seemed to be slipping from NATO’s grasp. The assassination of a high-level rebel commander and the resulting divisions between Islamist and tribal elements of the rebels sounded like a death knell for the resistance. Then everything turned around.

What happened? We may learn more about that in the days ahead. Preliminary reports suggest that, despite denials, NATO changed its tactics under pressure of the deadline for re-authorization. NATO began offering more aggressive support to the rebels, by attacking Qaddafi’s strictly defensive positions. In other words, we may have finally won this war only when we recognized that it was a war, and stopped treating it as a strictly humanitarian intervention.

That is all to the good, but the damage done to the credibility of NATO’s defense capacity by months of unnecessary stalemate has been substantial. We may have narrowly escaped the disaster of a failed intervention, but Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, and other potential adversaries have taken note of the West’s weakness. We have fought under inhibiting rules of war that appear to have prolonged, rather than relieved, Libya’s suffering. NATO itself has been divided by the intervention, with participation by its member states far from complete. Those states that have participated have been stretched to the limits of their capacity. Britain’s once mighty defense apparatus, in particular, has been seen to be significantly weakened by cuts.

Above all, President Obama prolonged this war by his conscious decision to “lead from behind” — to assist and orchestrate NATO’s efforts, but without providing the close-in air support that could have ended the conflict far sooner. In part, Obama’s policy stemmed from a reluctance to see American casualties, since low-flying close-air-support planes could have been shot down. And in part, Obama was determined that Libya should stand as a precedent for multilateral interventions under United Nations auspices, fought according to U.N. rules of war, and, implicitly, subject to the authority of the International Criminal Court.

So Qaddafi has been toppled, but only after a notably weak and unnecessarily prolonged campaign. If this is what it takes for America and its allies to dislodge an unpopular dictator in open terrain, our more dangerous potential adversaries cannot be feeling much fear right now.

Libya’s effect on the American public may be more important still. While the ultimate impact will depend on the post-war environment, something can be said today. Genuine pleasure and relief at Qaddafi’s fall is now balanced against months of public exasperation and exhaustion with a war that had a weak rationale to begin with. In itself, the Libya intervention was “small.” Yet coming in the wake of two substantial wars that have stretched our military capacity to its limits, Libya felt to many like the straw that broke the camel’s back. Our military was skeptical about this war from the start. A palpable public shift of sentiment against interventions, even among conservatives, has been precipitated by an action in Libya that seemed only loosely tied to America’s security interests.

This is a shame, because the transformations in the Arab world are taking a decidedly dangerous direction. Quite possibly, we will someday face the need to intervene in situations in which our security really is under threat. Let’s hope the public hasn’t been so exhausted by then that it hesitates to support what must be done.

At best, post-war Libya will become a stable and flourishing democracy (unlikely, I think). At worst, it will descend into the anarchy of tribal war and Islamist insurgence. Anarchy in sections of Yemen has already opened up a dangerous new sanctuary for al-Qaeda. That is the greatest potential concern for Libya. Islamist rebels may already have seized Qaddafi’s storehouse of heat-seeking missiles, perfect for shooting down civilian airliners. Post-war Libya may avoid the worst, but its tribal divisions and devastated civil society do not inspire confidence.

So the dangers of post-war Libya may force us again into the same uncomfortable choice presented by the war itself. We can minimize American involvement, but perhaps only at the cost of losing control of a potentially very dangerous situation. Reluctant European allies, we hope, will take up the slack, but perhaps not very effectively. It will take months and years for us to render a fully informed verdict on whether it was worth wading into this mess to begin with. Even if so, we would have gotten through only by the skin of our teeth.

United Nations authorization, legal precedents like the controversial Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, and involvement of the International Criminal Court may seem like irrelevant window-dressing amidst all the power politics. Unfortunately, the internationalist agenda of tying down America’s military with U.N.-backed doctrines and law has probably been advanced by this intervention. It’s true that the unexpectedly difficult course of the war may discourage further R2P-style interventions. Should Obama be reelected, however, U.N. rules and principles will likely continue to gain ground, while congressional approval and war fighting under a robust traditional conception of American national-security interests may suffer as a result.

So the verdict on the Libya war so far is decidedly mixed. Qaddafi is ousted, our minimum military credibility has been preserved, and Libyans face at least the chance of a better future. Yet the intervention has exposed the West’s weaknesses, discouraged a public already exhausted by war, and now risks unleashing forces that could pose serious dangers to American national security. Time will tell.