The current military intervention in Libya by the West has been marketed with the claim that its purpose, as French President Sarkozy put it, is “to protect the civilian population from the murderous madness of a regime that has forfeited all claim to legitimacy.” Behind this humanitarian idealism, however, lurk a host of questions and dangers, reflecting wishful thinking rather than a prudent foreign policy.
First we should acknowledge that the intervention is an American show. The French and British, and perhaps a few Arab nations like Qatar, may provide some warplanes and a few missiles, but the bulk of the materiel and intelligence assets that makes such attacks possible is American. Thus the U.N. Security Council resolution and the participation of NATO serve to give a patina of internationalism to an American action. This fact should remind us, particularly those who are proponents of internationalist and multilateralist idealism, that the United States, not any international institution or coalition, is the world’s peacekeeper responsible for maintaining the global order that makes possible the globalized economy enriching everybody else. Given that the U.S. is shouldering most of the costs and risks, then, our interests and security should be the primary reason for our participation.
Next, all talk of humanitarian idealism aside, national self-interest is the key determinant of NATO and Arab League participation. Back in 2003, the French weren’t so keen for the much more difficult and costly task of getting rid of Saddam Hussein and “the murderous madness” of his regime, one whose toll of torture, murder, and terrorism vastly outstripped the grisly record of Muammar Gaddafi. Too many French leaders had profited too long from their cozy friendship with the Butcher of Baghdad, buying his oil and selling him advanced weaponry. But now the French have calculated that they can obtain some international prestige on the cheap, given that the U.S. will once again carry most of the load and in the end take most of the blame if things go south. As for the Arab League, their true intentions have become obvious from League spokesman Amr Moussa’s condemnation of the airstrikes because they have “led to the deaths and injuries of many Libyan civilians,” parroting Gaddafi’s propaganda. Apparently what the Arab League supported was the appearance of action without its necessary consequences. And it takes considerable cheek for regimes that brutalize their own people on a regular basis to call for the removal of Gaddafi because he brutalizes his own people.
The lesson here is one George Washington understood: “No nation can be trusted farther than it is bounded by its interests.” So what are the national and security interests of the United States in this intervention? The received wisdom of Republican and Democratic foreign policy alike is that support for brutal dictators in the long run tarnishes our prestige and harms our interests by squelching the democratic aspirations of the oppressed. In the Middle East particularly, this “democracy deficit” has empowered the jihadists who turn to a debased form of Islam in compensation for a lack of freedom. Removing these oppressive autocrats thus will clear space for incipient democratic movements to create regimes founded on liberal democratic principles of freedom, tolerance, human rights, and the rest. And our efforts to liberate oppressed Muslims will buy us their affection and support, further eroding the appeal of jihadism and making us more secure from terror.
But this dogma begs any number of questions and looks more like wishful thinking rather than a sober understanding of reality. In the past we have liberated oppressed Muslims in the Balkans, oppressed Muslims in Kuwait, oppressed Muslims in Afghanistan, oppressed Muslims in Iraq, and now we’re going to liberate (maybe) oppressed Muslims in Libya. And how much goodwill has that bought us in the Muslim world? Did liberating millions of Shiites from a murderous tyrant in Iraq make Shiite Iran stop regarding us as the Great Satan? Of course not. We have to free ourselves from this curiously arrogant assumption that the whole world determines its policies and beliefs simply in reaction to what we do. Muslims have a religious world-view and sensibility that condition their actions and interests, and we must understand those spiritual beliefs in their own terms rather than reducing them to the materialist determinism that dominates our thinking. As the Ayatollah Khomeini said, he didn’t start an Islamist revolution to lower the price of melons.
In the current crisis, this means seeing beyond the feel-good terms “democracy” and “freedom” and thinking about what sorts of regimes will take the place of the autocrats we help remove, and whether those regimes will better serve our interests. Right now we don’t know what sort of regime will arise in Egypt, but so far the implications for our interests aren’t good, given the widespread Egyptian opposition to the peace treaty with Israel, or the release of many jihadists, including two who had participated in the assassination of Anwar Sadat, or the increasing clout of the Muslim Brothers, whose number two leader said recently, “Our people and societies must realize that their main enemy abroad is the U.S. and the Zionist gang, and that their main enemy within is Israel. Everybody must take this into account, and must be aware that this is the enemy that lurks in the midst of Middle Eastern society. This must be clear to everybody.” We should also be troubled that the Westernized moderate Mohammed El Baradei was pelted with stones and shoes and driven away from the polls so he couldn’t vote against a referendum supported by the Muslim Brothers, all the while security forces stood by and watched. As Barry Rubin writes, “At this point–to show how bad the situation is in practice–Amr Moussa, veteran radical Arab nationalist, Israel-baiter, and anti-American is quickly becoming the best one can hope for in terms of the new regime.”
As for Libya, we have little knowledge of what the rebels want, or even who they are. Even more troubling, rebel-controlled eastern Libya has been the home of the al Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). According to a Stratfor report, jihadist personnel files captured in Iraq revealed that on a per capita basis, Libyans comprised the largest percentage of foreign insurgents, and 85% were suicide bombers. Finally, the majority of these fighters listed their hometowns in Libya as Darnah and Benghazi, the latter the de facto capital of the rebellion.
The implications of the removal of Gaddafi, who had worked out a mutually beneficial modus vivendi with the LIFG, or of the splintering of Libya into two countries, are not good for American interests: “Even if Gaddafi,” Stratfor concludes, “or an entity that replaces him, is able to restore order, due to the opportunity the jihadists have had to loot military arms depots, they have suddenly found themselves more heavily armed than they have ever been inside their home country. And these heavily armed jihadists could pose a substantial threat of the kind that Libya has avoided in recent years. . . . The looting of the arms depots in Libya is also reminiscent of the looting witnessed in Iraq following the dissolution of the Iraqi army in the face of the U.S. invasion in 2003. That ordnance not only was used in thousands of armed assaults and indirect fire attacks with rockets and mortars, but many of the mortar and artillery rounds were used to fashion powerful IEDs. This concept of making and employing IEDs from military ordnance will not be foreign to the Libyans who have returned from Iraq (or Afghanistan, for that matter). This bodes ill for foreign interests in Libya, where they have not had the same security concerns in recent years that they have had in Algeria or Yemen. If the Libyans truly buy into the concept of targeting the far enemy that supports the state, it would not be out of the realm of possibility for them to begin to attack multinational oil companies, foreign diplomatic facilities and even foreign companies and hotels.”
Events in Libya reveal once again the danger and hypocrisy of internationalist idealism. After all, murderously mad, illegitimate regimes are as common as flies, many of them much worse than Gaddafi. This means our interventions abroad must clearly be in the service of our own interests. But intervening in a civil war in service to other nations’ interests and our own misplaced idealism––without a clear knowledge of the rebels’ aims, or a reasonable estimation of what sort of regime will be in place when the smoke clears––endangers those interests and puts at risk our national security.
(photo credit: Laura Billings)