I was in favor of international intervention in Libya pretty much as soon as it became apparent that the revolutionary forces there wouldn't be able to survive without foreign assistance. I've seen people make arguments against intervention in Libya from just about every angle, and have intended to write a post on the subject for about two weeks, but I'm just now getting around to it.
We need to be clear about one thing, which is that we have every reason to believe that without foreign assistance there would be absolutely no hope of any revolution in Libya. Claims that the pro-democracy movement in the Arab world would be better off without Western intervention make sense on insofar as those pro-democracy movements would be successful. I think we can all agree that it is better for a country to be able to liberate itself from tyranny than to have some external force come in and get involved, but what's even worse than foreign intervention is total failure. There was no potential for success in overthrowing Gaddafi in Libya without foreign intervention, period.
But why support intervention at all? The two main reason why I support intervention are humanitarian and strategic.
I am convinced that without foreign intervention Gaddafi's forces would have ended up killing at least tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands. Libya has one of the largest military forces in Africa, and while much of the military equipment at Gaddafi's disposal is old, dated, and perhaps poorly maintained, it is still a heck of a lot better than what the rebel forces have. The rebel forces pretty much, from what I can gather, have only small arms and meager hand held rockets and a few heavy vehicles they have been able to take over. Gaddafi's forces, however, have Soviet tanks, Soviet fighter jets and bombers, a moderate 1970s era navy, and plenty of artillery and small arms, along with plenty of mines, bombs, and rockets, not to mention critical access to infrastructure which allowed Gaddafi to do things like shut off water and power to entire cities and regions.
Gaddafi has clearly demonstrated on multiple occasions that he is a megalomaniac that isn't entirely in touch with reality, who is more than willing to use brutal force and kill people. He's been a sponsor of international terror for decades and has taken action against Libyans before. In fact, from a purely "brutal dictator" position Gaddafi was clearly a bigger threat than Saddam Hussein was, and I'd argue that Iraq was a target of the neo-cons instead of Libya because Iraq, despite Saddam being less of a threat, was of much more strategic interest to the neo-cons.
So we know that Gaddafi had both the means and the track record for large scale violence. There was every reason to believe that without foreign intervention we were about to see a bloodbath in Libya, and there wasn't time to try and work on other "options". My understanding of the situation (which may be flawed, but its all I can go on) is that without immediate intervention the killing of Libyans would have been under way within a day or two of when the air strikes began. And regardless of whether or not tens of thousands plus would have been killed, what is certain is that the revolution in Libya would have been over. Gaddafi's forces were already taking back ground one taken over by the rebels, and the revolution looked to be on its way to collapse within days. As it is we already know that from hundreds to thousands of Libyan rebels were killed by Gaddafi's forces prior to foreign intervention.
I have no doubt that despite whatever civilian casualties may be caused by foreign intervention, intervention will ultimately both save more lives and more likely lead to a better future for Libya than not intervening.
Now on to the strategic reasons to support the intervention. I view the intervention in Libya as an excellent opportunity to get the international community and international institutions re-engaged in global security and to assume greater responsibility for needed military intervention.
The fact is that the United States currently shoulders far too high a burden when it comes to global security. We should be looking for ways to get the Europeans and our other allies more involved in international security, especially when it comes to areas in their own region of the world. For one thing the United States simply cannot afford to police the whole world, and for another thing I don't trust the United States, or any country for that matter, to have such a disproportionate amount of power.
I'd like to see the Europeans (and the Japanese for that matter) increase their military spending and take on greater responsibility for global security, which would allow the United States to decrease military spending. This action in Libya is a good exercise in moving toward this objective, and, despite whatever criticism I have about Obama in regard to many of his policies, it does appear that he shares a similar objective.
We need a return to multilateral international institutions when it comes to issues of global security and military intervention both for the sake of democracy and checks on power (and here I mean American abuse of power) as well as for the sake of the American budget. Even conservative critics of international cooperation have to acknowledge that trying to maintain American military supremacy is hugely, and in many respects needlessly, costly. Some conservative critics of the Libyan international intervention have complained about American involvement with the UN and NATO and have complained that the US should do this alone or take the lead. These same critics of course also complain about the national debt. You can't have it both ways. Being the world leader in all things military is hugely expensive and needlessly so. We do have allies, and not only can they help, but we should expect them shoulder far more of the burden than they currently do.
But what about some of the many complaints directed at the Libyan intervention, such as the following:
Why Libya, when we didn't intervene in places like Rwanda, etc? Well, first of all, I think we should have intervened in Rwanda, but I also think that the case for intervening in Libya is even greater than Rwanda, primarily because the international community has a larger responsibility for the conditions in Libya. Gaddafi's wealth and power comes almost entirely from outside Libya, from the oil money and from weapons acquired from foreign countries. Since Gaddafi's power comes from external sources, and is hugely unmatched by the citizens of Libya, the international community has to play a role in putting a check on his power. In Rwanda this wasn't the case. In Rwanda, and in several other such conflicts, the atrocities were not inflicted by a powerful military state against civilians, it was a war of civilians against civilians, using mostly low tech home grown weapons, like machetes, not fighter jets and tanks.
Why Libya and why not Syria or Yemen? Well, to be frank, Libya has a lot to do with opportunity. Gaddafi has very few allies, he isn't a partner of the US, he has a 40 year track record of violence and repression, and the scale of the violence is much, much larger. Yes, protesters are being killed in Syria, but as of yet there is no expectation that tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands would be killed, and the Syrians aren't engaged in military assaults on cities. In Syria what we have are conflicts between protesters and military forces, in Libya what we had was the military coming in and just laying siege to whole towns. Likewise, the rebel forces in Libya had taken huge amounts of territory and were significantly challenging the regime. In other words, they had taken significant steps toward overthrow by themselves already. In Syria and other such places this isn't the case.
If Libya, why didn't you support the war in Iraq? For many of the same reasons above. In Iraq there was no revolution going on at the time. There were no significant forces inside Iraq asking the US or the UN to help them overthrow Saddam with military force. It is true that some Kurds were asking for this, but it was also clear that they were a minority in the country and they themselves weren't in a position to be able to do it. We had already been providing them air cover in the form of a no-fly zone as it was, and there was no possibility that the Kurds would have been able to overthrow Saddam or that the rest of Iraq would have supported such an action by the Kurds anyway.
But, we don't know who these rebels are, maybe they are "bad guys" too! To this I say "so what?" Look, if you turn down an ally and you see a known mobster with some guy in a headlock punching him in the face with brass knuckles, assuming that you have the ability to stop the mobster you should. You don't ask who the guy is that's getting his face punched in first. If you know that the guy doing the assault is a "bad guy", you don't stop to figure out who the victim is first before you help them. Maybe some of the rebel forces are Al-Qaeda, maybe some of them fought against us in Iraq. Maybe, but what we do know for sure is that Gaddafi is a murdering dictator, so who cares? The chances that whoever comes to power in Libya will be worse than Gaddafi are virtually zero. Maybe they won't be great, but there is no reason at all to back Gaddafi in this situation.
But America is just an imperialist country that's greedy for oil and must have ulterior motives in this! Well first of all, all the more reason for an international coalition. Even if America and France and Italy and the Arab League all have reasons to try to take advantage of Libya, the fact that so many players are involved reduces the chance that anyone will be able to exert too power influence over the situation.
And let's not forget, the American Revolutionary War was only won because of the aid provided by the French. In fact, the French supplied more troops than the American colonies did, they supplied almost all of the warships, they funded the entire thing, and they suffered more casualties than the American colonists did. The reality is that without the French there would have been absolutely no hope at all for a successful American Revolution. It was 100% impossible for the American colonists to defeat the British on their own, 100%. The idea that revolutions need to be fought only by domestic forces in order to be legitimate is just plain absurd. If that were true, America wouldn't exist today.
And when the French helped America defeat the British, guess what? The French were imperialists with ulterior motives. They weren't helping us for the cause of democracy, the French were a monarchy at the time, they only helped us in order to weaken the British, it was purely for selfish reasons. My point here is that, who cares why some countries, including the US, may be taking this action, even if it is for ulterior motives, the fact is that this intervention has a far greater potential for good than doing nothing and letting Gaddafi slaughter his own people does. Who cares if the intervention in Libya is hypocritical, who cares if it is inconsistent? Better to provide hypocritical and inconsistent help than none at all.
We have basically two options. Option one is to take no military action, in which case the almost certain outcome is that Gaddafi will kill thousands and thousands of Libyans and retain power. Option two is to intervene militarily to stop or slow down Gaddafi's forces. The outcome of this action is uncertain. Maybe we will be able to force Gaddafi out of power, maybe we won't. Maybe thousands will still be killed, maybe they won't. Maybe this will lead to democracy in Libya, maybe it won't. Maybe it will take a year to resolve, maybe it won't.
We don't know the outcome of intervention, but we do know that the outcome of not intervening is a very bad one, and that alone is a good enough reason to intervene.