On March 10, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was castigated for stating that Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, if left to its own devices, would eventually prevail. Clapper has made some ridiculous statements in the past, but this isn’t one of them. Only in Washington would telling the truth be deemed irresponsible. Fast forward to today, and Gadhafi has retaken critical cities and an oil refinery lost to the rebels, and shows no signs of backing down. Looks like Clapper was right on this one.
During my book tour a few weeks ago, I was asked what I thought would happen in Libya. I predicted that within five days Gadhafi would flee, most likely to Venezuela. At the time, I knew he had two choices: 1) run like a scalded ape and take all the money he could with him, or 2) fight back. Historically, despots like Ghadafi have chosen option two. In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood took over the town of Hama in Syria, proclaiming it an “Islamic state”. Assad the elder solved that problem by obliterating the entire city, killing upwards of 40,000 people. Needless to say, Syria didn’t have a Muslim Brotherhood problem after that. I figured Ghadafi would want to choose option two, but given events in Tunisia, Egypt, and the unrest elsewhere, odds were that he’d run. I was wrong – and so was the Obama administration. President Obama, like me, sensed Ghadafi’s inevitable defeat, and decided to overtly state he must go. Then Ghadafi chose option two, which has put the US in a quandary, and is exactly why nobody liked Clapper’s statement. It didn’t jive with what they wanted to believe.
We’ve been in this situation many times in the past, wanting a specific outcome, but unable to predict if we can control the fallout. People are now clamoring for a no-fly zone, but it’s instructive to remember the genesis of that term, because it’s eerily similar to today’s Libya discussion.
In 1991, we defeated Saddam Hussein in Desert Storm. One of the principle reasons we didn’t drive on to Baghdad was that we couldn’t predict what would happen in Hussein’s absence. The country might fragment into a cesspool of competing violence between Shia, Sunni, and Kurd – leading to a long-term U.S. commitment. Emotionally, we wanted him gone, but pragmatically, we couldn’t control the fallout, so we let him stay. Even so, President Bush senior called for the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow Saddam. They complied, thinking we would help. We did nothing, and they were slaughtered. Finally, after getting pummeled for days, the United States was shamed into stepping in and creating a “no-fly” zone to prevent Saddam from using his air platforms.
Now, people are proclaiming we should do the same with Ghadafi without, I believe, looking past his removal to the fallout beyond. Make no mistake; if we implement a no-fly zone, two things will happen:
1) We will have attacked a sovereign country, with all the baggage that implies. We will have to destroy or dismantle all of Libya’s anti-aircraft measures, which will mean real bombs, real death and destruction.
2) We will be choosing sides. I find it humorous when someone says we’re doing it for humanitarian reasons. Even the Arab League, which just asked the United Nations for a no-fly zone, stated they only want it in place for as long as it takes to resolve the situation. Read between those lines. Do they mean we’ll keep it in place until either Ghadafi or the rebels win? Of course not. They mean it will stay in place until the rebel’s win. The rebel’s themselves say, “We don’t want foreign intervention, all we want is an air exclusion zone and our boys will do the rest”.
So, no matter what happens, we’ll be seen as siding with the rebels for the sole purpose of overthrowing Ghadafi. The biggest risk with this is being viewed as imperial crusaders and engendering hatred in the Arab world. Yeah, the Arab League has called for action, but that may or may not translate when the only thing flying is western jets. Which is likely a primary reason Secretary of Defense Gates is leery of overt action. Even with Arab league backing, there will be repercussions. As an example, here’s a comment a reader made about the story on the no-fly zone from al arabiya, an Arabic news agency: “…now they want that the NATO Christian military alliance to kill Muslim on the pretext of protecting civilians. One has to be crazy to support this wacky proposition.” Or this one on the same story: “Here’s the real deal about USreali (stet) expansion to dominate Africa as well as entire ‘middle east’ in its world war for global domination.” The Arab League proposal is a large step forward, but not a panacea.
How about something covert (yes, true covert action)? We could supply the rebels with intelligence, training, lethal and non-lethal aid. Then, maybe they can overtake Ghadafi without apparent U.S. help, getting the U.S what it wants, without the repercussions. The vaunted Special Air Service and MI6 of the United Kingdom attempted this very thing on March 3rd, launching a covert team into Libya. They were “arrested” by the rebels and expelled. Really.
And therein lies the rub. The problem with doing anything at all in Libya is that we cannot predict what the rebels truly want – or even if there is a unified rebel command. People state that getting rid of Ghadafi is the answer, but that’s only part of the equation. What comes after will be the true test, and we can’t accurately predict what that will be. Today a top ranking Libyan commander of al Qaida, currently murdering people in Afghanistan, has called for Islamic rule in Libya. Who knows how many of the rebels side with him.
It’s not enough to simply oust one bad guy, no matter how much that would make us feel good. An alternative must be in place before the removal. History has shown us plenty of “revolutions” for the greater good that ended in disaster. France had one and got the Reign of Terror. Russia overthrew the Tsar, and Stalin was the result. We created a coup in Guatemala in 1953 to prevent a communist takeover, and engendered a thirty-six year civil war, with countless dead civilians. More to the point, the last revolution in the Middle East was Iran. I think we can agree that didn’t turn out so great for the west.
Gates has been castigated recently for saying a no-fly zone would potentially cause us to enter into a third war in the Middle East. He’s ridiculed by people looking at half the equation, thinking our involvement will end when Ghadafi is gone. He knows it’s more, and that just getting Ghadafi out doesn’t mean victory. Once again, he’s telling a hard truth that most don’t want to hear. If the U.S. chooses sides it needs to be prepared to deal with the fallout. The U.S. can’t just walk away like we did in Afghanistan in the ‘80s after the Soviets left. Well, we could, but that would be foolish. Something the administration understands. Which leads us back to the original question: do we choose sides or not?
I don’t envy the person making the decision, because the repercussions will reverberate for our lifetime.