Sunday, April 10, 2016

Right policy is defensive aggression for the Much Less Bad

Two interesting and warring perspectives on Libya and foreign intervention - I agree with main points of both.

The first by Shadi Hamid at Vox argues the intervention was a success - obviously not as compared to democratic Tunisia, but as compared to the most likely alternative scenario, Syria's, with two orders of magnitude more deaths. What I'd add to Hamid is that another alternative, complete victory for Qaddafi, would also have caused thousands of deaths, many more imprisoned and tortured, and active military intervention throughout Saharan Africa today by Qaddafi. Libya is obviously in bad shape, a 1980s Lebanon, but that's better than the alternative.

The second by Micah Zenko in Foreign Policy argues, accurately, that the seven-month military investigation quickly went beyond protecting civilians to regime change. I agree with the slippery slope between what was said and what was done (and quite possibly intended from the beginning). What Zenko doesn't do is analyze whether and where things were done right or wrong during the intervention, focusing solely on the issue of what Western leaders said they were doing. And the many predictions of a Western ground war intervention against Qaddafi, made by people who now proclaim how right they were to oppose any military action while ignoring Syria's outcome, were simply wrong.

Hamid says the solution to the problem identified by Zenko is defining aims broadly, maybe including regime change, but I disagree - the problem is moving from the original stated strategy. The foreign military intervention started too late and then intervened too much, doing too much of the fighting for the rebels. I don't know if doing less intervention may have led to more cooperation between rebel groups, or even negotiations with pro-Qaddafi tribes, but maybe Libya could've been better off.

The point is that there's a coherent policy that was almost followed in Libya and could be followed in Syria for military intervention - do it defensively in support of forces that are Much Less Bad than the dictator. Air strikes are appropriate to keep dictator armies from overrunning rebel-held cities, as was the case in Libya. Keeping it limited forces the rebels to win, hopefully through obtaining support, in new areas. Military support short of direct intervention, through weapons and training, but not the classic boots on the ground, could help them expand without taking too much of the leading role away from them.

You also don't need to have 100% confidence that the rebels are perfect Madisonian democrats, if they're clearly Much Less Bad than the people they're fighting, because you get a much better outcome, a Libya instead of a Syria. I'd say that the people we support at least need to give cursory support for democratic government though - otherwise there's little evidence that they're really better..

I am concerned that Clinton is oversupportive of military intervention, although she's miles better than anything on the GOP side. I hope she could support a limited and coherent doctrine for when intervention should and should not occur.

One last thought that I haven't seen elsewhere: people on the left who blame the current bad outcomes in Libya, Iraq, and Egypt primarily on Western actions are denying agency to the people and forces within those countries. Check your assumptions and possibly your biases. That's not to say Western and US leadership didn't screw up - they did - but the outside world is just a vector among other forces and not the all-responsible controller of what happens in other countries.

Accepting a limited role that may help to a limited extent is a much more realistic and better foreign policy, especially in what should be the very rare case of military intervention.


Chris G said...

Related reading and listening -

1) Andrew Bacevich, Presidential Wars -

2) Bacevich interviewed on WBUR, "America's Long War In The Middle East" -

Himmel Jan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Russell Seitz said...

"I am concerned that Clinton is oversupportive of military intervention, although she's miles better than anything on the GOP side."

Wnat part of Lincoln Chafee and Rand Paul doesn't Brian understand ?

David B. Benson said...

I suggest you look at what the Friends Committee on National Legislation has written regarding these particular matters. These are peaceful ideas; the slogan is "War is not the answer."

William Connolley said...

Interesting ideas, but I'm not yet convinced. For example from the article: "NATO intervened to protect civilians, not to set up a democracy". Meh: NATO intervened for regime change. But was hampered in all its planning and organisation by not being able to admit that. Personally I think that's a big problem: we can't have a coherent conversation about what to do if we're all pretending to do something else; it cripples us.

I think a more plausible lesson is that just like in Iraq, there was no coherent overall plan.

caveat emptor said...

people .... who blame the current bad outcomes in Syria primarily on Western (in)action are denying agency to the people and forces within those countries.

Unfortunately at this juncture in Syria the "Much Less Bad" are a rather marginal force compared to the "Even Worse". In any case Western bomb attacks against the SAA while the Russians are bombing in support of SAA operations sounds like an extremely bad idea.

Susan Anderson said...

Bacevich is terrific. I also found this insightful:

"at least in the short term, America’s intervention will likely spark more terrorism against the United States, thus fueling demands for yet greater military action. After a period of relative restraint, the United States is heading back into the terror trap."

We go in and destroy neighborhoods at our peril. Ever since Mossadegh (and before, no doubt) we've been piling up hatred and opposition by interfering. That was for BP, no less!

Brian said...

Caveat - I'd say "at this juncture" is doing a lot of work in your point. We've had 5 years to do something different.

Regardless though, I think the Kurds and some (not all) factions of the FSA qualify as MLBs and control significant portions of the country in the northeast and northwest. They could deserve defensive air support.

The problem of Turkey playing a triple game to support and oppose various sides isn't helpful.

My other "regardless" point is that I'm trying to suggest an overall doctrine that could apply to the next scenario, not just Syria.

Regarding Bacevich, I heard him on KCRW To the Point - I thought he was long on criticism and short on what he would've done that would result in a better outcome.

I agree though that ISIS is a symptom of a problem more than a cause, and that it's foolish for the West to try to redirect anti-Assad forces to fight ISIS instead. And I agree with Beinart (and have written previously) that ISIS is responding to our attacks on them. They're bad enough actors though that we have a near-obligation in some circumstances to stop their genocide, though.

Mal Adapted said...

Russell: "Wnat part of Lincoln Chafee and Rand Paul doesn't Brian understand ?"

Can't speak for Brian, but what I don't understand is how we could have the best of both of them and the worst of neither.

caveat emptor said...


My suggested doctrine is pretty simple. When you Americans get itchy trigger fingers, which seems to be most of the time. JUST SAY NO. Rare exceptions may exist when a large part of the world (not just a few compliant allies) is actually clamouring for the Americans to do something.

My comment "at this juncture" in Syria was because you used the present tense "could" rather than "could have". I am not sure if there was ever a window for beneficial American intervention in Syria, but I am pretty sure it has gone now. Rather than bombs it would be better to use influence to stop American allies Turkey and the KSA from arming ISIS and Al Qaeda. I agree the Kurdish forces may be an MLB or at least an SLB (somewhat less bad) than Assad and the SAA but the Kurds and the SAA are hardly fighting and have in some instances been cooperating.