The UN has authorized intervention in Libya—which in practice is going to mean an American-led war. We’re not only talking about a no-fly zone but bombing as well, and “advisers” on top of that. This might be a good time to start a betting pool on when the ground war officially begins. Tomorrow we’ll have an essay by Gary Brecher—the War Nerd—exposing the folly of ostensibly small wars such as this. (The essay comes from our new issue, which went to press last week, but Brecher nails exactly what is happening now.)
Let me make a few impolitic observations at the outset. First, a number of the usual interventionist suspects—here’s looking at you, National Review—held off as long as they thought the anti-Gaddafi insurgents had a prayer of surviving, even winning. Why was that assumption wrong? Because it turns out Gaddafi has more support in Libya than anyone in the West was willing to believe. The insurgency could have and should have toppled him, if rosy estimates of Libyan solidarity against the dictator were true. But no.
What this means for Western intervention is that we won’t be liberating a country from a universally despised dictator, we will be taking sides in a civil war. Indeed, a civil war in which Gaddafi is not only the strongest force but quite possibly the most popular one. Nobody wants to believe that, but Gaddafi has not held onto power and so easily rolled up his opposition simply because he has shipped in sub-Saharan mercenaries.
Second, large-scale Western intervention will destroy the fragile Middle East revolution, and the Arab street will long remember this. The West is not talking about intervening against Bahrain, after all, to bail out protesters there. But it’s not just Western selectivity that’s at issue—anyone can see that Gaddafi is far worse than the Bahranis or Yemen’s Saleh. Rather, Western intervention, even if successful, will preclude certain outcomes in Libya. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and other more or less intensely religious forces can vie for power with other protesters (as well as with the still-in-place military establishment, of course). Egypt gets a choice in its destiny. Will Libya under UN/NATO/U.S. peacekeepers? By limiting Libyan options, should Gaddafi fall, to possibilities that are comfortable to the West, our interventionists will discredit whatever pro-Western (or at least, non-anti-Western) revolutionaries there are and enrage the Islamists. The only people who will wind up reassured are the kleptocratic rulers of the Arab world. In effect, what Eric Margolis describes as the American Raj is taking an action that will allow clients like the Saudis to survive, while unruly protesters in Bahrain are stamped out and Libyans are told they may only choose a Karzai — or a Mubarak? — to succeed Gaddafi.
Absolutely nothing could be better calculated to provoke Islamist retaliation against the West. And the conditions the West will create in Libya promise to be most conducive to al-Qaeda-style militants: dictators like Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein murder their own people, of course, but they also murder any Islamist who threatens them. With the tyrant gone, not only the innocent but militants, too, will enjoy a newfound freedom. And don’t think you can crack down on them without collateral damage to human rights — in our own country we have seen the civil-liberties toll that comes with the Department of Homeland Security’s bogus War on Terror. (It’s a war on Americans’ right not to be strip searched by well-paid government agents.) At least we Americans have to keep up appearances. Arab and Muslim lands are very familiar with pure police-state measures taken in the name of fighting nationalists and Islamists. A Western-backed Libyan dictator will have his excuses ready made. And what kind of influence might such a figure have on neighboring Tunisia and Egypt?
The West is not intervening into a two-way war. Obama, Hillary, and the gang are taking us into a fragmentary nationalist and religious conflict that pits Islamist radicals and supposedly nice Westernizing computer geeks against Gaddafis or Mubaraks — only thereafter to pit the radicals and Westernizers against one another, the remnants of the old regime, and, as often as not, the foreign invader. This intervention will turn a genuine popular revolution — with all the pros and cons that such things entail — into another Iraq or Afghanistan. And we still aren’t done paying the price for those wars. Indeed, the lost lives of American soldiers and foreign civilians, and the trillions of taxpayer dollars poured into the sand, are just the downpayment. The highest cost of all is the strategic price that comes with shoring up client despots and undermining popular movements for reform or revolution. Western interventionists are doing exactly what al-Qaeda wants by enabling the argument that real revolution can only come to the Arab and Muslim worlds only once the meddling West has fallen.