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Libya Through The Looking Glass

The uprising of Libyans against their long-time dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, has succeeded in toppling him and his regime. Now the post mortems begins. What lessons are to be drawn from the affair?

It is important to address this question sooner rather than later, for predicting the past has become chancy. History is no longer written mainly by historians. The dominant understanding of past events for the public at large, and for the 'informed' political class as well, increasingly is crystallized by interpretations made during and immediately after their occurrence. Pictorial images reinforce them. The purveyors of these stories rarely are qualified by knowledge, acuity of analysis and/or good intentions to shape our view of reality. Exhibit 1: the fictional legend of the 'surge' in Iraq.

Here are the main points that I believe we should bear in mind as we ponder the last six months in Libya.

Foreign intervention in support of a popular movement can work to achieve desirable ends. The how, where, why and by whom issues are critical to making a reasoned judgment in each case. There are no absolutes. Because the United States and/or NATO is involved does not mean that the action ipso facto is misguided, illegitimate and flawed. A converse judgment is no more sound.

The United States was not the lead player. The diplomatic initiative was taken by France and then by the Anglo-French couple. The large majority of the airstrikes were launched by the European members of NATO. Advisors and a few special force units on the ground, especially in the last phase, were again European with France in the lead (with Qatar also playing a role). The U.S. military role was significant in the first phase when cruise missiles were employed to knock out air defense and related infrastructure and a later intelligence contribution was made via aerial surveillance.

At the diplomatic level, Washington jumped in after others had made the running. Barack Obama's public declaration that "Gaddafi must go" was little more than an opportunistic attempt to reap some glory from what seemed like his imminent demise, i.e. a diplomatic freebie, Five months later he appeared before the cameras again to reap what he had not earned. In between, Washington contributed little of value. The post-hoc justification that the White House was perfecting the art of "leading from behind" was a feeble rationalization for Washington's irresponsibly sudden exit from the scene of action.

Libya has been a classic exercise in coercive diplomacy -- more exactly, a classic case of how not to conduct it. The first lesson to draw is that in a game of intimidation, the psychological factor is key. Actual use of military force is designed to undermine the morale and break the will of the targeted leadership. To succeed, it should be swift, concentrated and carry a credible threat of more to come unless they comply with the ultimatum. The United States and NATO failed completely to meet those requirements. Implementation of a vague, incoherent strategy was disjointed in the extreme. Military and diplomatic actions both were irresolute and fitful.

The West and their Arab partners sent the diktat that they wanted Colonel Gaddafi to yield power to the opposition. To this end, they sought to peel away his closest associates, military commanders and army units still arrayed at his side. Successes on this latter score were registered early in the confrontation but few further defections occurred until the denouement. Various elements enter into an explanation; one is that they visualized Gaddafi's surviving an onslaught that appeared fitful and irresolute.

Almost no battlefield support was given the insurgents at critical moments early in the campaign when Gaddafi and his loyalists were barely holding on. For more than a month, the thousands of claimed NATO air sorties had so little practical effect that opposition leaders voiced concerns that they had been misled if not betrayed. The incoherence and ineptitude of the air campaign undercut the political strategy of putting intolerable pressure on Gaddafi and his associates. The hand-off from the United States was abrupt and uncoordinated. President Obama was anxious to limit American exposure at a time of mounting domestic criticism about American overextension and the fierce opposition of the Pentagon led by Robert Gates.
As for NATO and the Europeans, their weak political will -- individual and collective -- is notorious. Once again they have demonstrated an inability collectively to manage difficult, complex missions when the United States is not there to lead them. This judgment holds despite the initiatives of French President Sarkozy who has been too erratic and lacking in the authority to orchestrate the behavior of other governments.

The talk -- now rife -- of what the United States and the West should do to help in the reconstitution of the Libyan state and the fostering of a democratic polity is misplaced. The revolution was made by Libyans. They have the human and financial resources to arrange their own affairs without outside interference. A prominent Western presence in the form of government agencies, international organizations and a slew of NGOs will raise the odds against success. We still harbor the conceit of our superior wisdom and our practical altruistic virtue despite abject failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. That does not auger well for playing a constructive future role in a world where most peoples are fed up with being pushed around by 'superior' Westerners -- above all, know-it-all Americans.

The issue is unlikely to arise. Libyans, who threw off the yoke of autocracy with bravery and perseverance, are not about to allow foreigners to take charge of their fate. They are fully aware of what the not so gentle ministrations of the United States led to elsewhere among those peoples who were denied the chance to make their own choices as to whether they wanted outside help in 'nation-building'. The exceptions are the owners of luxury rental properties and rug merchants.