Libya matters to the United States not for its oil or intrinsic importance, but because it has been a key part of the rapidly evolving transformation of the Arab world. For Arab protestors and regimes alike, Gaddafi’s bloody response to the emerging Libyan protest movement had become a litmus test for the future of the Arab revolution. 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.
The strong international response, first with the tough targeted sanctions package brokered by the United States at the United Nations and now with the military intervention, has the potential to restrain those regimes from unleashing the hounds of war and to encourage the energized citizenry of the region to redouble their efforts to bring about change. This regional context may not be enough to justify the Libya intervention, but I believe it is essential for understanding the logic and stakes of the intervention by the U.S. and its allies.
While I agree that a brutal suppression of the Libyan protest-turned-rebel movement could have broader implications for the region – effectively crushing the momentum of the democratic uprising there – this argument is still poor on the merits.
For one thing, there are no signs that US intervention in Libya has led to a cessation of force in other nations such as Bahrain. Nor is it likely that intervention in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or any other oil-rich US ally in the Gulf would take place even under Libya-like circumstances. We could intervene in half a dozen other Asian or African nations and the Gulf states would still not feel threatened by our show of force.
(Hell, we could topple the leader of Iraq using much more than air power, occupy that nation for years, execute its former dictator, and we still wouldn’t convince the governments of Gulf states that America poses a threat to them.)
Second, entangling ourselves in a third conflict in the Middle East makes it much less likely that we will intervene elsewhere if another government decides to take the show-no-mercy approach in curtailing protests. Do we honestly think that intervention in Syria, for instance, would be a good idea should protests there erupt into a civil war? Now that we’ve spread our military so thin, could we intervene if Bashar al-Assad decided to crack down?
The real problem with this strategy is that we’re forced to maintain truly unrealistic levels of response in order for it to work.
If it’s nothing more than part of an elaborate game of chicken we can never blink. We’ll need to respond to the next state that tests us, and the one after that, and the one after that … until we’ve convinced the entire region that America is, in fact, Batman. If we don’t – if we blink – then the whole house of cards comes crashing down. The only way this strategy “has the potential to restrain those regimes from unleashing the hounds of war” is if we can follow through with more interventions should the need arise.
This strikes me as a pretty big gamble with very steep slippery slopes, and one I can’t imagine we have the political will or resources to follow through on.