US waffling on Libya is now mistaken for a foreign policy
Ronald Reagan went after Col Muammar Qaddafi; George W Bush went after Osama bin Laden; Barack Obama got them both. Thus the adolescent triumphalism offered to the media by an anonymous Obama administration official last week. But more serious voices in the White House and punditocracy also hailed the removal of Libya's dictator as heralding a new "model" of US intervention pioneered by Mr Obama.
The National Security Council official Ben Rhodes insisted that this model confounded the critics of the administration's "leading from behind" idea, citing the light US footprint in Libya as more effective than the troop-heavy strategies of the Bush administration. Fareed Zakaria, the columnist and TV commentator consulted by the Bush administration ahead of the Iraq invasion, hailed the Libya intervention as marking nothing less than "a new era in US foreign policy".
Zakaria listed four conditions that distinguished the Libyan intervention from its immediate forebears: an indigenous group (the Benghazi rebels) had shown itself willing to fight for regime change; "locally recognised legitimacy" was established by Arab League backing for intervention; UN Security Council Resolution 1973 provided international legitimacy; and the lion's share of the military burden was born by US allies, France and Britain.
This, he argued, gave the intervention vitally important local legitimacy, and doesn't leave the US responsible for a broken country, as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan - establishing this case as a model for future interventions.
The Economist magazine enthused that the overthrow of Qaddafi was "achieved mostly by Libyans themselves. Rebels entered the capital without a single western soldier visible on the ground (though there were some special forces). Nato air attacks, as well as weapons supplied by friendly Gulf states, aided the rebels. But they alone manned trenches, which will give them added legitimacy in months to come".
But The Economist, to its credit, recognises that the Libya intervention has far more in common with Afghanistan than boosters of the "new model" would care to admit: it was not the US or Nato that stormed into Kabul, but the indigenous Northern Alliance - supported by US air power, and with its special forces in attendance. Let's not fool ourselves, either, about those western special forces dressed like locals: whether in Kabul or Tripoli, they were less like military attaches observing manoeuvres than they were like American football coaches calling the plays.
Like Libya, the Afghanistan mission also had broad regional backing (even Iran supported it) and the UN fully backed the regime-change operation, taking charge of brokering a new governing arrangement.
The Economist consoles itself that "there is no sign so far that alliance ground troops will follow in the path of pilots as they did in Afghanistan, where a 2001 air campaign against the Taliban allowed a weak and divided opposition to take over, only later to need rescuing."
If things do go awry in Libya, the foreign powers that enabled the takeover by an ill-defined collection of rebel militias will be blamed for the chaos.
It takes some chutzpah to paint the administration's hesitant, sometimes skittish policy improvisations as a coherent strategy, much less a "doctrine" - although the way that term is thrown about in Washington, as if a presidency is a papacy, borders on the ridiculous.
As for offering a model for the future, consider Zakaria's preconditions: finding indigenous fighters to challenge a despotic regime in hope of winning Nato backing isn't hard - it was a strategy perfected by the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1998 while it was on the US list of terrorist organisations. Since Tripoli fell, Syrian opposition elements are signalling an intent to try the same thing. Regional backing? Every potentate has enemies among his neighbours, so that's hardly prohibitive. But it's hard to imagine the US winning similar UN authorisation for any military intervention for the foreseeable future.
To the Russians, Chinese and most of the non-western world, the Libya experience simply confirmed a sense that the Nato powers cannot be trusted to abide by the limits of any international mandate, but will invariably treat it as licence to pursue their own agenda. UNSC Resolution 1973 authorised military intervention to protect Libyan civilians and create conditions for a political solution to the conflict; the Nato powers used it as cover for providing combat air support to one side of a civil war - the form and purpose of the Nato mission was decided by a handful of western countries and a few Arab allies, and bore little resemblance to that which had been authorised by the UN.
As for burden sharing, Libya may have also demonstrated the limits of what non-US allies are able to bring to the battlefield. There was little potential for escalation being kept in reserve if the force that was deployed in the Libya theatre proved insufficient.
And Afghanistan ought to provide ample warning that indigenous allies do not necessarily provide incontrovertible legitimacy when intervening in countries riven by ethnic, tribal or sectarian conflict. A light US footprint behind an indigenous rebellion was not enough to ensure that President Hamid Karzai would be embraced by all Afghans as their ruler. And there are plenty of reasons to question whether Libya's rebel leadership will be embraced as the sole source of political authority.
Nato forces are unlikely to be committed to any stabilisation mission in Libya. Of course, western powers do not expect that will be necessary. But when intervening in distant conflicts over the past two decades, western powers have almost routinely overestimated the competence and political authority of their indigenous allies, and underestimated the resilience and support base of their foes. Libya may not mark a new era of American foreign policy at all, but rather a repetition of some familiar themes in the hope of achieving a better outcome.
Tony Karon is an analyst and writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TonyKaron
Published: August 31, 2011 04:00 AM