by Victor Davis Hanson
NRO’s The Corner
What a No-Fly Zone Means
Now that we are committed to a no-fly zone (an unwise idea, I think, given the absence of consistent aims or defined objectives), we must support it and ensure its success.
We must prepare for a number of paradoxes that might arise. For instance, do we attack from the air targets on the ground, given that Qaddafi’s ongoing strategy likely will be to use tanks and artillery, often at night and among civilian landscapes, to beat back the rebels? (I assume that Qaddafi can still quite handily defeat the rebels without jets and gunships.) Does the no-fly zone, in the fashion of its previous counterpart over Iraq, escalate to more offensive tactics, such as taking out depots or armor concentrations, given that we have raised the ante and don’t want our newfound allies to lose with their advantages of Western air cover?
Are we still sort of neutral, or should we begin coordinating our tactics? And given the savagery of the last two weeks and the proclamations that Qaddafi will be subject to international justice, we must be prepared for a bitter finale and for reprisals on all sides. So does our support for the rebels include some efforts to ensure they do not end up doing to their enemies what their enemies did to them? (In this regard, who exactly are the rebels? And what are their aims, methods, and ideology?)
Also, it might be wise not to talk anymore about what we might do, lest we end up in a close-Guantanamo-in-a-year embarrassment. Let Qaddafi guess what our limitations are. To avoid a congressional revolt in the middle of an air campaign, as happened during the Clinton bombing of Milosevic, at some point President Obama needs to get a joint congressional resolution of the sort we saw on Iraq in October 2002.
In sum, I think we are going to learn that stopping Qaddafi’s air power is just the beginning of a messy situation. Qaddafi will be frantically searching for ways — amid public denials — to slaughter the rebels and to embarrass the West that is now committed to defeating him. Given what we know of over 20 years of intervention in the Middle East, we should assume that today’s supporters of action will become tomorrow’s ‘I told you so’ critics. Allies peel off rather quickly; the direction of insurgencies is unpredictable; and air power alone rarely changes conditions on the ground.
Our decision, I’m afraid, does not mean that rebels will soon surge into Tripoli to proclaim a new democratic republic with ample gratitude to the Western planes above them. I hope I am terribly mistaken.
What’s Next After Libya?
Since the president has established no clear-cut typology of Middle East unrest as it pertains to his own reaction — e.g., no meddling in Iran, outreach to Syria, pressure on Israel, finger-in-the-wind/so-long to Mubarak and Ali, military force against Qaddafi, silence about Saudi, Bahrain, and Yemeni crack-downs, mum on Jordan, etc. — and since we apparently have lots of reactions, both verbal and military, cannot his NSC and State Department teams come up with something more than an ad hoc policy based on crude guesses that when today’s rebels seem to have a 51 percent chance to win, they deserve our support?
Some suggestions: Why not predicate American support for dissidents and insurgents on the existence of some sort of formal stated aims? That is, before we say we wish rebel group X to throw out dictator Y, we want to see roughly who X is, and what they at least claim they want to do when they take over from Y. That way, we might avoid the embarrassments of declaring the Muslim Brotherhood largely a secular organization with no interest in governance.
We should also recognize that while we have some clout to rid the world of our own authoritarian allies in places like Egypt and Tunisia, these strongmen are not nearly as savage as those in Iran, Libya, and Syria, against whom we have no clout other than military force. In other words, again, cannot we, at least for internal purposes, have some sort of priority list, ranking the savage and the not-so-savage, in order to give some focus to our efforts?
At what point do our statements of “concern” escalate from verbal demands to military force? As it is now, the world understands that the United States offers day by day bottled pieties contingent on the relative chances of an insurgency’s success — our interest predicated not on our own security, or even what may be better for the proverbial people, but on a crude calculus that we don’t want to be seen by the Arabs and Euros as not supporting winners or backing losers.
And finally, we are now fully engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. At some point, some not very nice people both in the Middle East and outside it are going to realize that — in this window of opportunity, given a financially insolvent, militarily overextended, and clueless US — the more provocative they are, the more they are likely to get away with things, given US commitments in three regions. So we’d better plan on deciding in advance what constitutes the next crisis that we must intervene in. A mass slaughter in Iran, an Assad doing another Hama, North Korea shooting a missile into the South? Personally, the loss of probably 20,000 or more Japanese, and the specter of food, power, and water shortages threatening one of our staunchest and best allies, a country that has done much for the world in the last few decades, seems a more pressing concern than using our military forces and national attention to ensure some rebels of unknown status can yank Qaddafi out of Tripoli.
I think long ago we reached the logical end of the foreign policy of “reset” and “As time passes, you start taking it for granted that a guy named Barack Hussein Obama is president of the United States. But we should never take it for granted.” The world is heating up despite, or even because of, Barack Hussein Obama, and if we are not careful we are going to see another 1979, when all the Carter chickens came home to roost all over the globe.
When You Set Out to Take Vienna, Take Vienna!
When the mission in Libya and its methods are not clearly stated and the leadership role of the US is not defined, then the ambiguities and paradoxes simply mount. The president’s statements and press conferences are only making things more oblique. Are we (and our European allies) or are we not targeting Qaddafi? Should he go, as the president once demanded, or not? Why are we so eager to claim a UN sanction to American action when we have not introduced the matter to the US Congress for approval? At least we can say of our Congress that its members were all elected, which we cannot say of many in the General Assembly and some in the Security Council. I’ll pass on the Arab League, but the president for some reason in his statements thinks it is more important to justify American military force through a vote of approval from non-democratic states than his own country’s legislature. If we “tone back,” as the president promises, does he really think others will “tone up”? And given that our present toned-up role has not resulted in the departure of Qaddafi, what will the toned-down version do?
Instead, we ignore congressional approval, broadcast to our enemies all sorts of self-imposed limitations on our use of force, have not defined the mission as the removal of Qaddafi, on day three are promising less rather than more military force, have no clue what is to replace him, and seem uncomfortable with a leadership role that would define victory and take the necessary measures to achieve it.
Under those conditions, I am afraid this president has no business putting US forces in harm’s way when he not only has not answered these questions, but apparently has never considered them.
Our Modern-Day Ribbentrops
Can we at least be spared during the Libyan bombing sermons from the parade of ex-Libyan ambassadors still embedded in embassies in the US and Europe, who bolted only when it looked like three weeks ago Tripoli would fall?
They keep appearing on television pontificating about humanity and freedom and lecturing the West about our moral responsibility to end this Qaddafi monstrosity, but not a one ever reminds us exactly how they got such good jobs under such a nightmarish regime in the first place.
No one forced them to work for Qaddafi, and they seemed to have quit only when it was likely he would fall and they might find justice at the hands of an angry lynch mob. I would make a modest prediction that should the Qaddafi clique perish, and should some sort of regime emerge to take his place, most of these international diplomats in a year or two will be employed and trashing the US over its pro-”Zionist” policies.
The template was offered by the Americanized career of Egyptian housediplomat Mohamed El Baradei, frequent US critic and now would-be reformist candidate in Egypt, who is “shocked” at thuggery in the Arab world, but for some reason rose to the top of Egyptian society under Sadat/Mubarak autocratic patronage, and never seemed to have much problem with the nexus of the ruling oligarchy, its kleptocratic and human-rights excesses, and the dictatorship’s promotion of his own career abroad — until Mubarak was likely to fall and it was wise to get out of town a day ahead of the posse.
©2011 Victor Davis Hanson