Experts: What's Behind Decision to Intervene in Libya?
Two skeptics of the no-fly zone mission in Libya, Burkle Center Senior Fellow Gen. (ret.) Wesley K. Clark and Acting Professor of Law Asli Bali, identified a range of mixed motives behind the move to intervene and speculated on what will happen next.
Published: Wednesday, April 13, 2011
In his address to the nation, President Obama cited many reasons for his decision to intervene militarily in Libya last month. But did his concerns resonate with other political leaders in Washington, European capitals and the United Nations? And what pressures were swirling around this decision?
Two prominent skeptics on campus of the no-fly zone mission in Libya, Burkle Center Senior Fellow Gen. (ret.) Wesley K. Clark and Acting Professor of Law Asli Bali, identified a range of mixed motives behind the move to intervene and speculated on what will happen next. On Monday, April 11, Burkle Center Director Kal Raustiala moderated the discussion before an audience of about 100 people at the law school.
Clark described the opportunity to take on Moammar Gadhafi, regarded as a loathsome figure for decades, as "low-hanging fruit" for U.S. policymakers. At the same time, he said, the chance to goad Obama into action must have seemed irresistible for political strategists in the Republican Party.
"It was a win-win in the sense of partisan politics," said Clark, observing that the president, whichever path he chose, could either be cast as weak or blamed for taking the United States into a third war. Launching a new attack overseas might even tie Obama’s hands in negotiations over the budget, he said.
"The only way you would lose is if somehow, miraculously, Barack Obama could swing a cheap and easy victory, and if he did that you could then claim you motivated it," said Clark, who has argued in the press that Libya did not meet tests for intervention.
Professor Bali noted there were additional pressures in favor of Western intervention, including European worries about oil and migration from sub-Saharan Africa. The military weakness and diplomatic isolation of Libya — "maybe the only regime in the entire region that unifies the Saudis and Hezbollah"— made intervention more likely.
More troubling, Bali said, are the incompatibilities between the stated goals of Britain, France and the United States and the decision to impose a no-fly zone while bombing Libya from the air, which she called "a tactic without a clear strategy." Aerial bombardment is not toppling Gadhafi, she said, nor is it drawing the parties at war nearer to a negotiated settlement. Over the long term and even today, she argued, the tactic does not even serve humanitarian ends.
"A very large swath of civilians in Libya are now living in places that are bombed regularly at night," she said, and the rebel forces coordinating with NATO threaten the safety of civilians if they gain ground. As things stand in the current stalemate, the rebels reportedly are summarily executing alleged Gadhafi loyalists. Bali made the remarks to debunk what she described as a black-and-white framing of a two-sided conflict, without discounting the rebel army's role in representing freedom-seeking Libyans.
"The likely outcome, if this is as far as we're going to go tactically," she said, "is essentially a partition" with Gadhafi in control of western Libya, rebels in control of the east and a partition line eventually being established, with or without a cease-fire.
"This is terrible obviously for civilian populations that are near that particular line," said Bali.
According to Clark, the goal of promoting popular Arab uprisings strongly influenced the way Washington looked at Libya, with Obama needing to follow through in the spirit of his 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt.
"The argument was au currant in American policy circles that if you didn't follow through on Gadhafi and he was able to freeze this revolution, then you would end up with counterrevolution in Egypt and in Tunisia, and you would lose the whole idea of the Arab Spring," Clark said.
Once the United States is engaged in conflict, however, the stakes immediately skyrocket, according to Clark, who said that Iran "would love nothing better than to see the United States humbled in Libya." While judging Gadhafi as "smart, charismatic, ruthless, visionary and capable," Clark said that the Libyan leader is now in a dangerous game.
"One mistake and he ends up positioned between the president of the United States and reelection. And at that point, Gadhafi’s toast," said Clark. "No president of the United States is going to allow himself to be put into a position of being humbled by Moammar Gadhafi."
Supposing that Gadhafi is defeated, Bali said, or leaves the country in the sort of negotiated settlement that seemed more likely before March 19, it's still hard to envision how NATO allies will achieve the next set of goals.
"You still have a nightmare," Bali said. "You have no real institutional structures. You have a transitional national council that's deeply divided and is not representative of the country."
The speakers agreed that attempts to arm and train rebels are likely moving forward, with uncertain results.
"The blowback prospects of that strategy are enormous and obvious," said Bali.