Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nothing Is Simple

The dynamic conflict in Libya is reminding me of the desert campaigns between the Axis and Allies during World War II--back and forth and back.  The consensus seems to be that Qadaffi may not be all that sane, but he does know how to fight a rebellion.  This, of course, has made it clearer that aid, embargo, no fly zone and air support may not be sufficient to oust him.  I was hoping that the increased danger his officers were facing from above might cause them to turn or run, but that does not seem to be happening.  While Q's coup-proofing strategies may have made it harder to repress the rebellion at first, they do still seem to be working well enough to keep enough of his military on his side.  The opposition, whoever they are, are not that competent as far as rebels go.* 
*  Of course, Yavin IV was almost a complete disaster with nearly all of the fighters shot down and only a lucky shot into an exhaust port at the last second making a difference.  Plus there was the trap they fell into when facing the Second Death Star.  While we tend to criticize militaries for developing standard operating procedures and such, they tend to be better than disorganized rabble even in the movies.
Which leads to the debate du jour: do we arm the Libyan rebels?  With what?  Memories of Afghanistan are coloring our view of this.  Would we be building the seeds of a future anti-American/anti-Western supporter of terrorism?  I think the analogy is interesting, but tends to go from step a to step c like the Underwear Gnomes, skipping step B (that we abandoned Afghanistan to an awful civil war).  The US and its friends have armed plenty of rebels around the world, and not all have become the home of anti-American terrorism.  Not that we should take this possibility lightly, but we have some confirmation bias going on if we think this is the biggest challenge.

Nope, the biggest obstacle to arming the rebels would be ... our own policies.  An arms embargo, which is the standard procedure for interventions in civil wars, always hurts the rebels who tend not to inherit the arms of the military (unless we conveniently disband the military as we did in Iraq).**
** Yes, I am still bitter about it.  How about you?

The arms embargo is, inconveniently enough, part of the UN resolutions covering this mess, and something that is important to many of the members of the coalition.  Dropping an arms embargo to support one side is pretty hard to do--we didn't manage to do that in Bosnia despite much domestic political pressure (Bob Dole), but that may have been because the UN was already on the ground and in harm's way (that would be, ironically, the French and British).

Sarkozy is not going to find much support for this next step.  Which might be ok for him as any resistance internationally may not hurt the domestic politics of the situation--getting support for his government at a time of awful polls and bad sub-national elections.

This reminds me a great deal of Kosovo--not just in terms of the use of air power to try to get a preferred outcome and the avoidance of boots on the ground--the impatience.  We react every day to the day's events, with each swing causing tremendous conniptions.  While patience may be seen as a privilege that those who are not getting shot at can take, rushing into decisions would seem not to be the best idea.

I wonder which battle in the past would have caused as much drama for its daily reverses.  Perhaps folks would have called the invasion of Normandy a failure on late June 1944 with the troops bottled up near the beach?  Would today's media have called for firing Ike either in early June or late December 1944? 

I guess my point du jour is that we might want to take a breath and see where things are headed, do a bit more homework, and not be so responsive to the calls for acting immediately.  There are now NATO forces in place that can have an accumulating impact.  But the governments need to do the work to consider the options if we want more than a stalemate.  Bargaining with Qaddafi would be off the table given his lack of credibility and given the demands of the rebels.  I cannot blame them.

So, how do we proceed from here?  No need to decide to take, but some thinking is required.  Arming the rebels may not be either feasible or efficacious.  What counts as boots on the ground?  Any boots or just conventional boots?  Given how little we know about both sides in Libya, it is hard to say what is likely to work best or work quickly or work cheaply (three different standards there at least).

1 comment:

Chris C. said...

Is there any way we could get some kind of military trainers into Libya? Seems like more than anything the rebels need to learn how to fight in an organized manner and learn tactics. Not much time to do so, of course, but that's a way we could help without having to send in weapons directly.

As far as weapons go, it sounds like the rebels are complaining about the lack of ongoing air support. It's pretty hard to fight a war when you have no idea when the tanks and artillery firing on you will get blown up (or not). Do you recall the specific cases where arming the rebels helped us without any blowback? I can't find a good case right off the top of my head.