Countering the Impulse to Militarily Support the Libyan Underdog

By James M. Dorsey

Debate about a Libyan no-fly-zone and foreign military intervention pits the populist impulse to come to the aid of the underdog against cold, rational analysis that ultimately leads to the conclusion that it would be in the best interests of Libyan opponents of the Gadaffi regime, the broader wave of anti-authoritarian Arab protest and longer term Western interests in the Middle East and North Africa for Libyans to fight their own battles on their own steam.

With Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadaffi employing heavy armor as well as his air force to stop the rebellion against his 41-year old, often eccentric rule, the price for freedom being extracted from his opponents threatens to be high. Yet, the price of foreign intervention could prove equally exacting. If Afghanistan and Iraq are anything to go by, foreign intervention translates into continued instability rather than sustained stability.

Gadaffi’s successors would find it difficult to live down criticism that they had come to power on the back of US and West European military intervention. Labeling the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai as an extension of an occupation force has been a major factor fuelling the Taliban insurgency and undermining Karzai’s authority. Successive elected Iraqi governments have yet to insulate themselves from association with the coalition forces despite repeated elections being viewed as free and fair.

The pitfall of the stigma of foreign intervention is compounded by the fact that it remains unclear despite calls for international assistance from various opposition spokesmen whether a majority of Libyans would support overt military aid by NATO, the United States and the European Union. Equally unclear is on whose authority these spokesmen make their calls and how in tune they are with public opinion. Moreover, Libyan military operations appear to so far aim primarily at infrastructure and armed rebels among Gadaffi’s opponents rather than large-scale civilian targets. Finally, the International Red Cross and the United Nations do not need military intervention to deal with any potential humanitarian crisis; they often operated in difficult local crisis situations where no foreign forces are present.

Foreign military intervention may well be what Gadaffi and other authoritarian leaders in the region are hoping for. It would lend credence to the argument of Gadaffi and his sons that they are fighting a foreign conspiracy determined to split Libya and gain control of its oil riches. Gadaffi would be able to capitalize on that to strengthen loyalty among his supporters and persuade at least some of the unknown number of people who have been straddling the country’s pro- and anti-Gadaffi fault lines to support him in defense of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It will also allow Gadaffi to paint his fight in the colors of Libya’s struggle against Italian colonialism and figures vividly in the nation’s memory.

On a regional scale, what would benefit Gadaffi, would benefit other authoritarian Arab leaders. It would enable the rulers of for example Saudi Arabia and Yemen to reframe debate in their countries by positioning themselves as bastions of resistance against foreign conspiracies designed to undermine independence and national will. That would be all the more the case if NATO, the United States and the EU slip on the slippery slope of a no-fly zone and are forced to expand their military engagement with more extensive air strikes or even the deployment of ground troops.

Escalating military engagement would tarnish the West’s image with accusations that its newly found willingness to topple Gadaffi is opportunistic against the backdrop of years of seeking to please the Libyan leader in pursuit of oil and other economic opportunities in the North African state. It would also force Western nations, who have proven to be not very adept at nation building, to engage in rebuilding a society in which Gadaffi went to great lengths to evade institutionalization. Finally, foreign intervention would strike at the very heart of the wave of protests sweeping the region: an indigenous revolt that in Egypt and Tunisia has proven its ability on its own steam to topple leaders perceived as too closely ties to foreign interests to the detriment of the interests of their own people.

Foreign intervention would not only jeopardize that notion but also its one side-effect that has had one of the most immediate impacts on western security: the sidelining and undermining of remnants of public support for jihadists such as Al Qaeda rooted in the confidence that people can achieve their goals without resorting to terrorism. Foreign military intervention would play straight into Osama Bin Laden’s hand and offer him the straw he must be grasping for.

Setting aside emotion and populist urges to aid the good guys, Libyans and the international community are likely to be best served by allowing events in Libya to take their course. The price for freedom is often high, but it is a price that in Libya’s case offers greater prospects of long-term success than seeking a cheap short-cut that brings with it more probable pitfalls than sustainable results.

James M. Dorsey is a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog

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