War Number Three

George Kenney

Demon­strat­ing the law of unin­tend­ed con­se­quences, the UN Secu­ri­ty Council’s Res­o­lu­tion 1973, adopt­ed last Thurs­day evening, drew a swift response from Colonel Muam­mar Gaddafi’s gov­ern­ment: it launched the bat­tle for Beng­hazi. Fur­ther unin­tend­ed con­se­quences will sure­ly fol­low the UN/NATO coalition’s use of its brand new license for mil­i­tary force. But air pow­er by itself may not amount to much except in a sym­bol­ic sense. Which begs the ques­tion, what next? Or, more prop­er­ly, what’s the goal?

Having engaged in a new war, we should be careful that our public debate not degenerate, ironically, into what Susan Rice might ascribe to Gaddafi: capricious delusions.

Mean­while, last Sat­ur­day Mr. Oba­ma arrived in Brazil, keen to act pres­i­den­tial but unavail­able for detailed ques­tions about why the U.S. has gone to war or why the U.S. is play­ing an aux­il­iary role or why, even, he had neglect­ed to seek con­gres­sion­al approval. To be hon­est, it looks like he’s shirk­ing dif­fi­cult decisions.

With Mr. Oba­ma or with­out him, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on Res­o­lu­tion 1973 may be more com­pli­cat­ed than peo­ple imag­ine or than the pro-inter­ven­tion crowd admits. Notwith­stand­ing the impres­sive dis­play in recent days of coali­tion fire­pow­er, the Res­o­lu­tion more-or-less explic­it­ly crip­ples inter­ven­tion­ist options. Although it autho­rizes all nec­es­sary mea­sures” in order to pro­tect civil­ians and civil­ian pop­u­lat­ed areas under threat of attack,” imme­di­ate­ly there­after the text exclud[es] a for­eign occu­pa­tion force of any form [my empha­sis] on any part of Libyan ter­ri­to­ry.” That effec­tive­ly blocks the pos­si­bil­i­ties of esca­la­tion. More­over, because the Res­o­lu­tion autho­rizes the use of mil­i­tary force only in the con­text of human­i­tar­i­an pro­tec­tion, and because it also reaf­firms a pre-exist­ing UN arms embar­go on Libya, if it were fol­lowed to the let­ter its actu­al mil­i­tary val­ue to the insur­gency, once airstrikes have run their course, may prove illusory.

As was to be expect­ed, cre­ative ways are ener­get­i­cal­ly being sought to imple­ment the Res­o­lu­tion more broad­ly. The die-hard inter­ven­tion­ist Jamie Rubin, for exam­ple, has appeared on TV to explain that occu­pa­tion” is not syn­ony­mous with the use of ground forces who are not occu­piers”; thus the words all nec­es­sary mea­sures” means what­ev­er coali­tion lead­ers want it to mean. A total mil­i­tary vic­to­ry, Rubin assures us, is with­in our grasp.

Rubin, a for­mer Biden staffer who served in Bill Clinton’s State Depart­ment, played a key role in the saga of U.S. inter­ven­tion in Yugoslavia. Evi­dent­ly he’s still got an appetite for dis­ci­plin­ing weak­er, recal­ci­trant nations. But what Rubin and many oth­er inter­ven­tion­ists fail to acknowl­edge is that the Secu­ri­ty Council’s vote of ten to zero includ­ed five crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant absten­tions — Brazil, Chi­na, Ger­many, India, and Rus­sia (40% of the pop­u­la­tion of the plan­et) — and, arguably, those five may not so care­less­ly aban­don their efforts to restrain an ill-con­sid­ered war. In effect, the inter­ven­tion­ists are call­ing for a show­down in the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil at a time when the U.S. has insuf­fi­cient mus­cle to tell those nations what to do and insuf­fi­cient resources to offer them a sat­is­fac­to­ry quid pro quo.

Con­tra Rubin’s mis­chie­vous hermeneu­ti­cal guid­ance, the com­pro­mis­es that already had to have been made to obtain Res­o­lu­tion 1973 gave it teeth main­ly in the form of eco­nom­ic sanc­tions. But if the UN’s actu­al con­sen­sus, its long term plan, is to top­ple the Gaddafi régime through eco­nom­ic pain then that plan depends on the abil­i­ty of coali­tion forces to block Libyan oil smug­gling for the fore­see­able future. Enforc­ing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions involves an enor­mous amount of work, most of it behind the scenes. Even­tu­al­ly — even­tu­al­ly — a sanc­tions strat­e­gy may suc­ceed but we can be cer­tain that the bur­den of sanc­tions will fall imme­di­ate­ly, and most harsh­ly, upon ordi­nary Libyans. Whether they under­stand it’s for their own good or instead ral­ly to defend Gaddafi seems a fair question.

In any case, as Amer­i­cans set­tle in for what could become anoth­er pro­tract­ed war we must resist the temp­ta­tion to ratio­nal­ize indis­crim­i­nate pun­ish­ment through recourse to mag­i­cal think­ing. As we lose sight of the facts the hard­er it gets to set coher­ent goals and find an exit.

Appeals to mag­i­cal think­ing, unfor­tu­nate­ly, have already begun to appear. Last Fri­day evening, for exam­ple, on the PBS New­shour, Mark Shields said the fol­low­ing, worth quot­ing in full:

But this — this is a sit­u­a­tion, we have no idea what the endgame is going to be. But I think the pos­si­bil­i­ty, Jef­frey, of stand­ing by while there was a human­i­tar­i­an dis­as­ter that he was threat­en­ing, he, Gad­hafi, was threat­en­ing, of the dimen­sions of — rel­a­tive­ly speak­ing, of Rwan­da, were just unac­cept­able, not sim­ply to the Unit­ed States, but to the inter­na­tion­al community.

To com­pare the scale of mur­der and may­hem in Libya to Rwan­da would be insane, if tak­en lit­er­al­ly. Shields knows, of course, this isn’t a seri­ous argu­ment — he’s mere­ly hint­ing at the per­spec­tive of his sources. But who could pos­si­bly believe, and/​or would say, such incred­i­ble things? It’s proof of abysmal judg­ment on the part of at least sev­er­al senior admin­is­tra­tion officials.

Hav­ing engaged in a new war, a third con­cur­rent war, we should be exceed­ing­ly care­ful that our pub­lic debate not degen­er­ate, iron­i­cal­ly, into what Susan Rice might ascribe to Gaddafi: capri­cious delusions.

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared at Elec​tricPol​i​tics​.com.

George Ken­ney, a for­mer career U.S. for­eign ser­vice offi­cer, resigned in 1991 over U.S. pol­i­cy toward the Yugoslav con­flict. He is now a writer in Wash­ing­ton, and host and pro­duc­er of the pod­cast Elec­tric Pol­i­tics.
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