03.20.11

Behind the Libya War

Why are we bombing Libya, when we're nearly broke and already fighting elsewhere? Peter Beinart on Obama's endgame in Libya—and how the difficult lessons of Bosnia shape the campaign against Gaddafi. Plus, U.N. jets strike near Gaddafi’s compound and more updates from Libya.

Why are we bombing Libya, when we're nearly broke and already fighting elsewhere? Peter Beinart on Obama's endgame in Libya—and how the difficult lessons of Bosnia shape the campaign against Gaddafi. Plus: Russia’s Vladimir Putin has echoed Gaddafi’s claim that Western airstrikes are a “crusade” against Libya. 

It’s remarkable, when you think about it. The U.S. is already fighting two, deeply frustrating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The public mood is isolationist; the president is by nature cautious; the federal government is nearly broke. Libya is peripheral to core American interests, and most Americans would have trouble finding it on a map, even with the name written in.

So why are we at war there? More than anything else, because of Bosnia. Ask most Americans about the Bosnian war and you’ll get the kind of answers Jay Leno elicits when he asks passers-by who won the Battle of Britain. But foreign policymaking is generally an elite affair, and Bosnia was the crucible in which a whole generation of American and European elites forged their view of the world. It was Bosnia where Western liberals decided, 20 years after the fall of Saigon, that Western military intervention could be both moral and effective. It was Bosnia where civilian elites learned to distrust the Pentagon’s warnings that limited war was impossible. It was NATO’s success in Bosnia that convinced so many that the West could have intervened successfully in Rwanda, and which set the stage for the humanitarian war in Kosovo in 1999.

Look at the people who reportedly influenced their governments to back a no-fly zone: Samantha Power at the White House, who began her professional career reporting from Bosnia. Bernard-Henri Levy in France, who made a 1994 documentary urging military intervention against Slobodan Milosevic. “Europe’s shameful failure to prevent genocide in the Balkans was a formative experience for a whole generation of British ministers,” explains The Economist. “Some close observers of Balkan suffering now hold key posts in the present-day coalition government.”

As in Bosnia, the West’s motive for intervening in Libya is not purely humanitarian. In the early and mid-1990s, U.S. and European leaders decided that what happened in the Balkans might well determine of the fate of the broader revolution that was remaking Eastern Europe. They decided that taming Milosevic was crucial not only to the fate of democracy and human rights in the former Soviet Bloc, but to the expansion of Western power. That’s the case today as well, both for the U.S., which wants to stay on the right side of the Arab democracy struggle, and especially for Mediterranean countries like France and Italy, whose fates are deeply bound up with North Africa’s. Libya, like Bosnia but unlike, say, Congo, sits on NATO’s doorstep. And Libya, like Bosnia but unlike, say Bahrain, does not reside near the orbit of a hostile regional power.

Twice in the Balkans, Milosevic caved just in time. We should all pray that Gaddafi does the same.

So what are the lessons of Bosnia and the Western air wars that have followed? First, that humanitarian wars are not won purely in the air. What turned the tide in Bosnia—at least as much as NATO bombing—were the arms shipments and military training that allowed the Bosnians and Croats to best Serb forces on the ground. In Vietnam, by contrast, Saigon could never field enough motivated troops to take advantage of U.S. air attacks, which was why American GIs largely had to take over. The Libyan rebels seem to have plenty of motivation. The question is how much weaponry and training America and its allies can get them in a short period of time. Luckily for the U.S., Egypt appears to be facilitating the transfer. If Western governments don’t already have military trainers on the ground in Libya, I’d be amazed.

Second, the more successful an air war is, the less control America has over its allies on the ground. The U.S. didn’t want the Kosovo Liberation Army to cleanse the province of Serbs or to declare independence. They did both. We wanted the Northern Alliance to stop short of Kabul when the Taliban fled the city. They ignored us. If we’re lucky, the Libyan rebels will soon be a much more powerful force, and if we’re really lucky, they’ll be a powerful force capable of unifying Libya behind a reasonably humane regime. But the latter will be mostly out of our hands.

Finally, Western planes will kill innocent people, and the war will drag on longer than Western leaders want. And sooner or later, Barack Obama and his European counterparts will likely confront this question: Would they rather lose than go in on the ground themselves? It doesn’t really matter that Obama has already ruled the latter out. So did Bill Clinton in Kosovo, and according to some accounts, it was only because and Tony Blair reconsidered that Milosevic let Kosovo go.

In a way, that is the question that Bosnia hawks (a category in which I include myself) were always able to evade. Twice in the Balkans, Milosevic caved just in time. We should all pray that Gaddafi does the same. Because if he does not, humanitarian hawks will be forced to face a painful truth: Americans will tolerate a lot of casualties in a humanitarian war, just so long as none of them are ours.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.