What the Neoconservatives Are Up to in Libya
As Muammar Gaddafi spouts delusional nonsense about how "all my people love me," his 41-year dictatorial reign over Libya appears to be crumbling all around him. Opposition fighters in the cities of Zawiyah to the west of Tripoli and in Misurata to its east have scored defensive victories against Gaddafi's armed forces, much of the army in the east has gone over to the side of the opposition, humanitarian aid is starting to flow into the country in large amounts, and ad hoc councils of Libyans have begun governing areas under anti-government control. Even in Tripoli, still solidly held by the regime and reportedly blockaded against entry by Libyans from liberated areas of the country, public protests continue to take place, albeit at considerable risk to the participants.
Amid what appears to be a ring closing around Gaddafi and his bitter-enders, calls for military intervention have intensified. At one end of a range of options is the creation of a no-fly zone to keep Gaddafi's air force from killing civilians from the air and from moving mercenaries quickly from staging areas around Sabha, a central Libya city and military base where they have been landed in large numbers.
Although logistically difficult, a no-fly zone has significant backing, including support from some anti-government Libyans in and out of the country. But other Libyans have opposed the idea, saying they can beat Gaddafi without such assistance. They seek only medical and other humanitarian aid. Some Americans, Europeans and other non-Libyans oppose the no-fly approach for fear that it will be a wedge for further military action and possibly lead to the establishment of long-term military bases in the country and control over Libya's vast deposits of low-sulfur oil, the largest on the African continent, with much of the country's potential reserves still unexplored.
Here's an example of the caution some Libyans are expressing:
In Geneva today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the foreign ministers of Italy, France, the United Kingdom and Germany to discuss the no-fly option. Clinton also called upon Gaddafi to immediately step down, something he has said he can't do because he holds no official position.
Whatever its potential benefits and drawbacks, however, neoconservatives want a good deal more than a no-fly zone. In a letter to President Barack Obama late last week, 40 analysts, including a dozen former officials of George W. Bush administration – the people who fabricated the excuses for the Iraq war – urged moves against Libya, some of which have now been taken by the United States and others: sanctions, providing humanitarian aid, shifting naval forces to the region, freezing Libyan government assets.
While neo-conservatives were among the first to call for military action against Gaddafi in the past week, some prominent liberals and rights activists have rallied to the call, including three of the letter's signatories: Neil Hicks of Human Rights First; Bill Clinton's human rights chief, John Shattuck; and Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, who also signed the [neo-conservative Progress for a New American Century] Iraq letter 10 years ago.
In addition, Anne-Marie Slaughter, until last month the influential director of the State Department's Policy Planning office, cited the U.S.-NATO Kosovo campaign as a possible precedent. "The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters," she wrote on Twitter. "In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted."
Such comments evoked strong reactions from some military experts, however.
"I'm horrified to read liberal interventionists continue to suggest the ease with which humanitarian crises and regional conflicts can be solved by the application of military power," wrote Andrew Exum, a counter-insurgency specialist at the Center for a New American Security, whose Abu Muqawama blog is widely read here. "To speak so glibly of such things reflects a very immature understanding of the limits of force and the difficulties and complexities of contemporary military operations."
Sen. John McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman want to go further than those who signed the letter. The U.S. should recognize a provisional revolutionary government in Libya and provide the opposition with weapons, they say.
Given their record, nobody, certainly not the President, should be listening to these two, nor to the remnants of PNAC. On those rare occasions when their proposals might intersect with something that appears sensible, their imperialist motives should be thoroughly suspected. We've had plenty of evidence of what they are really about. And that includes Libya itself. When the long-term U.S. embargo was ended and diplomatic relations restored by the Bush administration, human rights were not part of what Gaddafi was required to change.
While the fight is not over, perhaps far from over, Libyan fighters seem to be tightening the noose around the Gaddafi regime, and the international community's diplomatic and financial sanctions, as well as the flow of humanitarian aid, appear to be ample enough assistance to bring the dictatorship down. While a no-fly zone might prove useful, it poses all kinds of risks, both logistical and, for progressives, political. If it is imposed, it ought not to be done under the auspices of U.S. or European forces.