Shadi Hamid has a post up at the Atlantic taking meta-stock of the events in Libya so far. Like most everyone, I’m quite happy to watch Qaddafi’s regime fall, and like most sensible people I’m pretty nervous regarding what comes next, given the general fluidity of the political situation there and the handicaps Libya faces in developing stable democratic institutions.* I remain somewhat ambivalent about the NATO intervention in Libya, for all the reasons I outlined back in March. Still, I’m as hopeful as anyone that the ultimate outcome will be positive for the Libyans, and I very much hope that the international community works to create an environment that’s as conducive to a healthy democratic transition as possible.
In any case, Shadi argues that intervention should have been faster and more forceful, and that more robust action earlier could have helped avoid the long stalemate of the past few months as Qaddafi’s regime was ground down. Key graphs:
If anything, it could be argued, as I did in March, that Obama’s excessive caution made a bad situation even worse. If the U.S. and the international community had intervened sooner — rather than at the very last moment when rebels were making their final stand — Qaddafi would have fallen sooner and without such loss of life and destruction.
This, lest we forget, is how the rebels themselves saw the situation in March. They were literally begging the United States to take action. When their calls were met with silence, Iman Bughaigis, spokeswoman for the rebels, fumed that “[The West] has lost any credibility.” In a veiled but obvious reference to the fence-sitters, she continued, “I am not crying out of weakness … But we will never forget the people who stood with us and the people who betrayed us.”
With the Obama administration dragging its feet, French foreign minister Alain Juppe conceded that it was perhaps too late for military intervention. In other words, what seems like such a success now was then very much in doubt. Even after NATO stepped in, the complaints continued; NATO could do more but wasn’t, rebel officials argued, in part due to U.S. insistence on “letting others lead.” There was also an (understandable) reticence on the part of the Obama administration and its allies to more pro-actively arm and train Libyan rebel forces. But such hesitation, however prudent, came at a cost.
I disagree. Or, rather, I think there’s a case to be made that earlier intervention would have ended the regime more quickly (I noted this back in March as well), but I’m not sure it was really an option. Shadi slips back and forth between talking about “Obama’s excessive caution” and prescribing what “the U.S. and the international community” ought to have done. Those are two very different things. “Obama” probably could have intervened sooner had he thrown all pretense of domestic and international legitimacy to the wind and just ordered in the Sixth Fleet. It was legitimacy, tacit at home and formal abroad, that was gained by waiting and lining up the necessary ducks, and there was just no way that wasn’t going to take some time. Few leaders in the West were/are eager to get involved in more expensive and potentially catastrophic military campaigns in the Middle East these days, covert ops and drone strikes aside. Allowing events to unfold and convincing the relevant regional and global powers to either support or acquiesce to the campaign really was crucial. It might have been nice if that could have happened faster, but if congressional coalition-building is like herding cats, its international equivalent takes on the whole zoo. Under the circumstances, the politics of Libyan intervention were pulled off reasonably efficiently. Any faster would have been reckless by definition, if more tactically effective.
It’s also worth noting, as Daniel Trombly pointed out this morning, that increased organizational coherence among the rebels seems to have been crucial to their ultimate success, even with NATO airpower paving the way. That coherence, by all reports, took time to develop. The wisdom, conventional in some quarters, that earlier intervention would have allowed for a quick victory thus deserves serious critical scrutiny.
Finally, to get a bit meta myself, I think that Libya demonstrates both the power and limits of internationally-coordinated military responses to discrete repression by Qaddafi-types. On the one hand, a fairly robust response was eventually coordinated, legitimized through international institutions, and implemented, to the ultimate downfall of the regime. On the other hand, its success was highly contingent, cumbersome even in its best moments, worked by running roughshod over the domestic legal niceties of at least one intervening state, exceeded its theoretical legal mandate (though, seriously, if anyone voting for that resolution didn’t think they were voting to kick Qaddafi out of power, they should learn to read political documents), and may still produce nothing but a dysfunctional and deadly mess. International governance is hard.
All the rest aside, the people of Libya deserve enormous credit for continuously braving danger and death to bring about a better, more democratic, more just society. Kudos.
*I’m not being essentialist; Libyan oil (resource curse), weak civil society (legacy of Qaddafi-style regime), militarized nature of the transition (lots of fragmented and armed political actors), and poorly-organized political movements all present serious challenges to the construction of a stable democratic regime there.