Wednesday, March 2, 2011
In case you've been living under a rock lately, there's been an intensifying debate about whether and how to use military force to keep Qaddafi from turning relatively limited massacres into a complete blood bath.
I - and as far as I know, none of my fellow Ink Spotters - know enough about Libya's internal politics and military capabilities to justify having a firm view on what the best option should look like (although I look forward to them proving me wrong). That's not what I want to write about here.
Rather, I want to take on the knee jerk reaction from many otherwise thoughtful commentators on military affairs to any suggestion of US military action to protect foreign civilian from getting slaughtered.* I suspect that some at least will protest that this isn't what is motivating their calls for caution, but the consistency of how this debate plays out (over the last 20 years, at least) is disturbing, and suggests there's some disappointing predictability on both sides. So in the interests of getting some very bright people to put some serious thought into how to deal with this problem,
1. Military action isn't always the answer, but sometimes it is the only option to halt mass killing.
The last time this debate occurred, Ex put forth four basic questions that cover most of the important ground. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, no one - including Ex - is publicly answering those questions with regard to Libya. Most of us (again, including Ex) just don't know enough about the country, and what is currently going on there.
However, Ex, Elkus and others are all emphatically pointing out how complicated military intervention can be, and in the past have highlighted the potential for things to go wrong - very wrong, very quickly.
On this, they are absolutely correct, but it's true of all military operations, regardless of the objectives. Repeating it ad nauseam is not really contributing to the debate. Certainly, those who underplay or obscure the very real dangers should be challenged. But those who draw false analogies with little if any resemblance in the specifics of the situation are equally guilty of misrepresenting reality. And the skeptics of intervention tend to stubbornly ignore examples of success in some very hard cases.
Moreover, those of us who've studied this particular type of problem in detail would warn that history has consistently demonstrated that when groups tip over into mass killing, very little short of military action has ever proven effective. Everything else takes too long to bite, or simply doesn't bite hard enough to change the strategic calculus of the perpetrators.
So instead of vague discussions of how difficult and costly it might be, or patronizingly dismissing the other side as not understanding the complexity of military operations, those who want to weigh in should be making specific arguments about the situation confronting us.
I will say this, though: a no-fly zone is unlikely to prove effective unless the perpetrators are only able to attack civilians from the air, or value their air assets above the goals they hoped to achieve through mass killing. Given that mass killing is usually justified or even triggered by a perception of existential threat from the victims, the latter is pretty unlikely. A pair of articles (to which Ex linked) highlight the limitations of no-fly zones in general, and with reference to Libya.
2. Acknowledge that inaction has costs
As stated above, those who caution that any military operations to halt massacres will carry risks and costs are inarguably correct. Advocating for military action without honestly assessing those risks and the likelihood of success is irresponsible. But so is advocating against military (or diplomatic or economic, for that matter) action without discussing the risks of inaction.
Those risks depend on the specifics of the situation, but they are never zero, and in many cases are much larger than opponents of action are willing to acknowledge. Whether in Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, or the Horn of Africa last decade, or North Africa today, there are real strategic costs to inaction. While sometimes hard to tabulate, they can be substantial and shouldn't be ignored in the policy debate.
Opponents of military action need to offer serious alternatives, and be held to the same standard of honest assessment when it comes to the risks of their recommended course of action as proponents of using force.
3. Take the question seriously
The most frustrating aspect of this debate is many of the best military analysts out there seem to never really engage with the challenge of how to achieve US foreign policy goals when they prominently include preventing large scale killing. On Afghanistan; on drone strikes; on counterinsurgency in the Philippines and Thailand; on CT in Indonesia; on Lebanon and Israel...on all these issues, analysts whose primary expertise may be in military affairs and not the particular region feel it is incumbent on them to develop enough regional expertise (or at least consult with those who have it) to be able to competently discuss the USG's policy options. Not so with regard to situations of mass killing, especially if they occur on the African continent. Somehow, despite it being a recurrent challenge in US foreign policy decision making back to early 20th century...despite its mention in the National Security Strategy...despite the creation of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to work the issue, preventing mass atrocities continues to get short shrift from the very people who a) tend to think Rupert Smith knows what he's talking about** and b) could help develop more realistic and effective policy options.
To my fellow security analysts, a plea: if you think the calls for intervention in Libya (or anywhere else) are ill-conceived, then engage your abilities with as much dedication and conviction as you would for more established strategic priorities. Treat the prevention of mass killing as seriously as you would any of the other goals that have to be considered in developing policy and strategy.
UPDATE: The New York Times has a pretty decent Room for Debate on the subject here. Lots of different perspectives from the commentators, with a general abundance of caution. Sadly, the most consistent point is that we don't know enough about Libya. Even sadder when you consider how much money and effort we put into intelligence.
* At no point will you find me calling this kind of operation a 'humanitarian intervention'. The term 'humanitarian' is vague, loaded with baggage, and has a very specific meaning in the laws of armed conflict (not to mention for the humanitarian community, and the UN). There isn't really a neat alternative term, but I'm convinced enough of its pernicious effect on the debate that I'd rather wrestle with other language than contribute to the confusion.
** Ironically and unfortunately, General Sir Rupert was ill-served by his researcher, fact checker and editors when it came time to write about Rwanda - he managed to get many of the basic facts wrong in his otherwise excellent book.