Home/Daniel Larison/Setting Bad Precedents (II)

Setting Bad Precedents (II)

Cynics might argue that the GCC and Arab League have been willing to support the intervention in Libya for precisely that reason, to keep the West distracted from their own depredations. ~Marc Lynch

Well, count me as a cynic then, because it seemsobvious that this is the main and perhaps only reason why many of the member states of these organizations endorsed a no-fly zone. Now that the strikes have started and the U.S., French, and British governments are committed in Libya, the Arab League leadership is free to try to have it both ways by facilitating the intervention and then denouncing military action when it happens. Some minimal contribution to the Libyan campaign by Qatar and the UAE will make it difficult for the U.S. to oppose continued GCC intervention in Bahrain as long as Washington insists on keeping some Arab governments on board with the enforcement of the no-fly zone. Of course, Washington may not see a problem with continued GCC intervention in Bahrain. .

Lynch continues:

It should surprise nobody that the bombing campaign has triggered anger among a significant portion of the Arab public, which is still powerfully shaped by the Iraq war and aggrieved by perceived double standards (one of the most common lines in Arab debates right now is “where was the No Fly Zone over Gaza?”).

Obviously, no policy is ever going to please everyone, but it is worrying that an intervention that is supposed to be a “new beginning” with Arab and Muslim publics is unpopular with a significant part of those publics. This is why it is mistaken to set U.S. policy almost entirely on the basis of winning future goodwill in a region where the U.S. will continue to be resented for many other things besides support for authoritarian regimes. The hope that the U.S. can somehow get on the “right” (i.e., popular) side of these changes ignores that the U.S. isn’t going to be abandoning many of the policies that are still deeply resented in the region. Whatever goodwill that a Libyan intervention might conceivably win in Libya, we should not expect the same results anywhere else. This confirms what I was arguing last week:

People who claim that there can be a “new beginning” if the U.S. gets behind enough popular uprisings are overlooking all those policies that still generate resentment and hostility, and they are making the same mistake of thinking that an intervention on behalf of a Muslim population in one country will win sympathy elsewhere.

Instead of “aligning” values and interests, which is what Obama reportedly thinks a Libyan war will do, the administration appears ready to pursue a “values”-based policy towards Libya, where the U.S. has no interests, and to apply relatively little pressure on allied governments when they engage in similar behavior. In other words, the administration isn’t deterring “brutality across the region” with its Libya intervention, and that may be by design.

Lynch wrote earlier in the post:

If Gaddafi succeeded in snuffing out the challenge by force without a meaningful response from the United States, Europe and the international community then that would have been interpreted as a green light for all other leaders to employ similar tactics.

What is being most clearly interpreted as a green light for other leaders to employ these tactics is the more or less tacit acceptance of similar tacticscurrently being employed by other leaders. Unlike in Bahrain and Yemen, the Libyan opposition has turned into an armed rebellion, and it is the armed rebels (or rather their uprising and subsequent collapse) that have won international intervention. That can’t be a good thing for the future of protest movements in other countries.

The effect of this may be to promote the idea that the only way for political opponents of a regime to win significant, direct Western support is to take up arms and provoke the regime into using its military forces to suppress them. Intervening in Libya may have little effect on the calculations of authoritarian rulers elsewhere, as they already have strong incentives to use violence to crush dissent, but it will send a message that the way to get other governments to take the side of a political opposition is to resort to violence. The model of largely peaceful political protest provided by Tunisian and Egyptian protesters will be competing with the Libyan model of opposition, which is the model of violent resistance that is already quite familiar in the region.

For all the nations that cannot rely on armies that refuse to use force against protesters, and that may be quite a few of them, the lesson of the Libyan intervention is that Western powers will be moved to aid opposition forces only when there is a chance of a large-scale massacre. The intervention creates an incentive for provoking governments to commit large-scale atrocities by launching armed rebellions against them. This isn’t going to guarantee future interventions, but it may help create the conditions for future massacres. For many reasons, Western powers are not always going to be so quick to intervene, but the Libyan intervention creates the expectation that other governments will feel compelled to step in if the rebels’ situation is dire enough. That is likely to encourage rebel movements that are militarily and politically weak and have little chance of succeeding on their own, but which are just strong enough to create a crisis that will lead to calls for another intervention. We can’t know how much political instability and violence the implied promise of future interventions may cause, but it is a horrible precedent to set.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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