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08.23.11

A Not-So-Strong Strongman’s Collapse

Gaddafi’s defeat sparks a chain of questions: Was NATO’s intervention justified? Will Libya collapse into turmoil? Was this civil war the wrong occasion for Obama to test his just-war philosophy? Stephen L. Carter sorts through the wreckage.

In the end, it seems, the fearsome strongman is always alone.  Saddam Hussein huddled in a hole in the ground armed with cash and a gun, Osama bin Laden sat unguarded in his dilapidated house fantasizing about his return to prominence.  There are always rumors of a last defensive ring, a fearsome and fanatical elite, sworn to die in defense of the leader, but somehow these fighters never materialize.

The Arab Spring that has transformed Northern Africa over the past year has toppled another dictator. At this writing, rebels have overrun the compound of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. They have not found him yet, but nobody imagines he will be able to hide for long. For weeks his beleaguered forces have been melting around him, and even before Tripoli fell, journalists were reporting a steady stream of defections or surrenders by top Gaddafi aides.

In an earlier essay in this space, I referred to the problem as one of information cascade: the bodyguards notice that everyone else is fleeing, and, bit by bit, they flee, too.  The least dedicated might defect as soon as 10 percent of the security forces have given up, another at 20, and so forth.  Even the man who will stick with the leader until 99 percent of the others have surrendered eventually reaches his tipping point.

The Libya tipping point likely occurred when the rebels overran the city of Zawiya, a key stop on the road to Tripoli.  With Zawiya gone, Gaddafi lost his last oil refinery, and no matter how many scratchy audio messages from the leader were aired over state radio or television, nobody doubted that the end was near.  Once the tipping point passed, the regime could not save itself.

So, was the Libya intervention worth it?  Already experts have taken to the airwaves to measure the war against downstream consequences.  Many warn of a Libya collapsing into turmoil as the Transnational Council collapses into its various religious and ideological factions.  Others worry that Gaddafi’s weaponry might find its way into the hands of terrorists.  (Shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles feature heavily in this scary scenario.  Given the evident panic in which the elite Khamis Brigade fell when the rebels overran their base, it is likely that many will never be accounted for.)

Then of course there are the humbugs, experts who insist that the war should have been won faster, with strong American leadership.  Other dictators, they muse, might actually be encouraged by the ability of a madman like Gaddafi, who never really controlled his entire country or built a truly powerful military, to taunt the combined forces of NATO for so many months.

Probably Libya has not been a useful proving ground for President Obama’s theory about intervening for humanitarian reasons. In the end, stripped of the frills, Libya was just another civil war.

All are fair points.  But they all envision that one judges the rightness of a conflict by weighing up the variables:  on one side, so many lives lost, so much property destroyed, so much money spent; on the other, the downstream consequences.  Ironically, it is precisely this sort of bloodless calculation, nowadays almost second nature in our politics, that caused so much trouble for America’s Cold Warriors.  (So many lives lost in Vietnam versus so much containment of communism.)

President Obama, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in December 2009, proposed instead that we measure the justice of a conflict according to the Western tradition of just war theory.  The theory requires, among other things, a just cause, the exhaustion of peaceful efforts, and that the war be waged with legitimate authority.  The theory of just and unjust wars hardly weights consequences at all, except insofar as it forbids undertaking a war in which the likelihood of success is small.  One of the most contentious questions in just war theory, as in international law, is whether it is permissible for one nation to intervene in a conflict taking place entirely within another: in short, to take sides in a civil war.

President Obama apparently thinks so.  In his Nobel address, Obama argued for the permissibility and perhaps the necessity of intervening “to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government.”  In his March 2011 speech announcing that Libya would become, in effect, a test case for his theory, the president insisted that events unfolding there threatened “our common humanity and common security,” and likened the actions of the Libyan government to genocide, and insisted that the world need not “wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

What is notable about the president’s justification is that the only consequences it weighed were to the conscience.  He spoke little of the national security interests of the United States, and not at all of the likely costs of the war, in lives or materiel.  The slaughter served as its own argument.

The trouble was, as critics pointed out at the time, it was not at all clear that any slaughter was taking place.  There was terrible violence, yes, but it was the same terrible violence one will always find when rebels rise against a brutal regime.  To call it genocide, or even potential genocide, was an exaggeration.  To intervene, they warned, might even prolong rather than shorten the conflict.

(This last point, although counterintuitive, has some support in the field of conflict economics.  The basic idea is that if A and B are fighting, they might reach a negotiated compromise reflecting their relative military strengths.  If, however, C joins the battle on A’s side, B will realize that the earlier possible compromise is no longer likely to be achieved, and will therefore have to fight harder if it hopes for any compromise at all.)

Now the war is as good as over.  President Obama can take a justified victory lap.  NATO can breathe a sigh of relief.  The alliance is much weakened these days, thanks to draconian cuts in Western defense budgets, and would not have been able to sustain the intervention without an enormous influx of American money and materiel.  (The armed forces of the United States remain significantly more powerful than those of the rest of NATO combined.  Even though American pilots flew a minority of the 20,000 combat sorties in the war, the United States provided most of the real-time tactical intelligence and command and control, along with nearly all of the cruise missiles.)

Probably Libya has not been a useful proving ground for President Obama’s theory about intervening for humanitarian reasons.  In the end, stripped of the frills, Libya was just another civil war.  The West simply took sides.  (The right side for once.)   Had NATO never gone to Libya, the test case might well have been found at the farther end of the Mediterranean, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is indeed slaughtering his people, while the West performs its more familiar role of lamenting and condemning and calling upon.  We are unlikely to go to war with Syria, and I am certainly not suggesting that we should.  But if the nascent Obama Doctrine—the determination to intervene militarily ahead of the mass graves—is seriously meant, then sooner or later the West will likely have to fight for it somewhere.