The Debate Over What To Do In Libya

Implications for the Arab World’s Future and the Western Nations’ Role

Today finds a growing call from both Europe and America for action to support the Libyan people’s challenge to Moammar Gaddafi’s despotic rule. In Monday’s New York Times there was an op-ed by  Anne-Marie Slaughter entitled, “Fiddling While Libya Burns.”  On the same day the London Financial Times had an editorial with the title, “Face Down Gaddafi.” People on the right and people on the left are arguing for action of some kind. People on the right and left are against any military action. There will be a NATO meeting this week to determine what to do.

The question before the Western powers is what action, when, and to what objectives and at what cost.  There is also the question of under what kind of international authorization. Should it need a UN Security Council agreement, a NATO collective authorization, or a coalition of the willing?

Let’s be frank there are times when taking military action was a disaster for all. There are times when not taking action was also a disaster.  The issue is not one of pure principle and each case is different. That is what a policy planner and a decision maker always needs to know.  Not acting earlier against the Nazis was a  grievous error for the world. Getting into Iraq on a lie was a debacle for all. Fighting in WW II was not a mistake.  Think Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan/Darfur, Congo, and not least Rwanda.

The Financial Times argues that America must get off the fence and back a no-fly zone. The French and likely the British favor such an action, as does the Arab League. The Russians and the Chinese are still opposed as this is written.  But press reports say the rebels are threatening nations that do not back them, that they will determine their future oil policy on the basis of the support they receive or opposition. But they do not want foreign boots on the ground.  The EU could find no consensus…..I’ll let you figure out who opposed.  The FT states that Europe should play an “equal” part in a no-fly zone…and that says Europe has more at stake.

The decision needs to be taken soon, or the brutality of the Gaddafi military may leave a blood bath throughout Libya. The cost of that outcome needs to be calculated with care. The risks in any case are high no matter what option is chosen.

America is already war worn and conflict adverse. But as the FT said the US forces “are exaggerating the difficulty.” In her op-ed, Ann-Marie Slaughter said we should push for a US Security Council resolution for a no-fly zone and dare Russia or China to veto it. And she call for recognition of the Libyan National Council and working with the Arab League to give the Council “any assistance it requests.” These are all heady acts.

The more I examine the problem and long-term consequences for all, the more I think the international community has in some effective careful form to intervene but without American troops on the ground.  Looking at the region the forces of change in the long run are in the ascendancy and they hopefully will be in a more democratic direction. It is better to be on the side of our values and history at the same time.  It is even better to do so in a way that minimizes deaths and harm.

One thought on “The Debate Over What To Do In Libya

  1. Alan Choate March 16, 2011 / 11:38 AM

    It may be fair to talk about “fiddling while Libya burns”, but the West, and in particular the US, is faced with a difficult choice here. On the one hand, one may ask: If we do not intervene to aid those seeking the overthrow of a dictator, what is our massive military capability there for? But after the disastrous results of invading Afghanistan and Iraq, there is little appetite for more boots on the ground. Even the no-fly zone would involve a huge deployment of military assets, and there is no assurance that it would have the desired result. So we sit on our hands, frustrated at not being able to help. NATO, the UN and the leaders of the US and EU need to give this a lot more thought.

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