Libya And Strategic Deficits

Blake Hounshell’s (remember praktike? he’s a genuine Big Deal now…they grow up so damn fast…) Twitter stream, I’m sent (approvingly) to Dan Nexon’s ‘The Duck of Minerva’ blog, where he writes (approvingly) about the lack of a doctrinal cover for Obama’s intervention in Libya.

Now I have mixed feelings about this intervention; on one hand the lid is coming off the Arab kleptocracies as I discussed back in ’03 – which is a Good Thing. But we have no plans or capabilities in place to compete for the allegiance and affection of the lately-oppressed people whose dictators we supported for a generation – which is a Really Bad Thing.

But here’s Nexon:

That kind of thing makes liberal hawks get all starry eyed. But what makes Libya different than most of the other places where tyrannical governments do nasty things to their citizens isn’t terribly Wilsonsian:

* Qaddafi’s rule over Libya is, on balance, a net negative for US interests;

* The US doesn’t care much for most of his friends either;

* He’s sitting on not insignificant fossil fuel deposits;

* He has no real support among the great powers; and

* The UK, US, and France really, really, really don’t like the guy.

Well, gosh, that’s not very useful. because if that’s good policy, then invading Iraq made perfect sense – and as we all know, the smart kids have all determined that it made no sense (I’m remaining on the fence myself, but I’m neither smart nor a kid).

Here’s the issue; in my work I’m talking to people all the time about the difference between a strategy and a platitude. Platitudes sound a lot like strategies, but there’s a key difference – they don’t help shape action in a meaningful way. So just as science requires that a theory be falsifiable in order to be scientific, strategy has to cover certain actions and not others, and group actions into necessary, good, unnecessary and bad.

And unless the modern foreign-policy commentariat can a) make up a strategy that distinguishes Libya from Iraq (except by saying that for the fact that one is the product of a good president, and one the product of a bad one), or b) determine that Iraq was just as good a strategic idea as Libya – we’re flat out of strategies.

And that’s a Bad Thing. It’s a bad thing first because being able to articulate a strategy is the way that we – the American polity – buy in, and buy in is needed if we’re going to spend $600M/week in these parlous times. It’s also the way that we have a chance to attract all those struggling for liberation – for ideals. What ideals are we trying to project, and how? What are we asking of them to defend those ideals, and what are we prepared to spend in turn?

Like it or not, those are strategic questions. And simply saying that good interventions, like p0rn, are something we know when we see, is nowhere near enough.

Do-over, Nexon? prak?

22 thoughts on “Libya And Strategic Deficits”

  1. bq. _It’s a bad thing first because being able to articulate a strategy is the way that we – the American polity – buy in, and buy in is needed if we’re going to spend $600M/week in these parlous times._

    It also matters if the POTUS wants the American polity to buy in. As far as I’m concerned he doesn’t. It’s not a war; it doesn’t need Congress involved; it doesn’t need me to understand anything other than the decider’s good intentions. Don’t need to know much because by the time the public understands, we’ll be out of there and you’ll wonder why you worried your pretty little heads about it.

  2. Well the obvious response you will here is that we have no boots on the ground in Libya. This, however, reveals an even deeper naivety regarding being able to control just how much or how little of a war you end up in.

    I don’t think many people have taken into account just how far Ghadafi is willing to go- this is a man that engineered the destruction of a passenger airliner and bombing of a nightclub. What happens if he manages something similar in the near future?

  3. What huge historical opportunities are squandered here, when intelligent and determined diplomatic action might have accomplished the work of many wars, and prevented many wars. Why now?

    It’s instructive that the pseudo-pacifists, when their arrogant assumption of diplomatic prowess proves false, can think of nothing except to lash out with no plan or purpose. Maybe it was no accident that Gandhi plunged India into war, and Nehru did the same after him.

    There may not be enough gold to mint the peace prizes they’ll be handing out after this fucking fiasco.

  4. Mark,
    That’s my basic fear as well. One way to distinguish Libya and Iraq is that unlike Saddam, Ghadafi has a proven track record of killing bunches of civilians in other countries, not just his own. It’s his method of doing business.

    Also, this appears to be a guy who, if he wanted to retire to a life of exiled luxury, could have done it at many points over the last 20 years or so.

    My prediction is a basic stalemate. The rebels seem entrenched in the eastern half of the country, but apparently got their asses kicked over the last couple days when they tried to move West. Legally (as in… operating through the UN) I picture moves eventually happening to break up Libya. If emerging international legal norms exist for breaking of Kosovo or East Timor along historical lines, why not an independent Cyrenaica?

    This probably sets up enough of an international firewall around these folks that Ghadafi can’t get to them. Unfortunately, if he stays in power and can’t get to them, his MO suggests he’ll go back to blowing up Westerners. So really, the only way to “win” is to kill him, and quickly.

  5. _And simply saying that good interventions, like p0rn, are something we know when we see, is nowhere near enough._

    Yes, but it’s been true for 30 years, and there’s no sign (or will) to change this. Every president in my lifetime (and probably yours too) has used the flag of freedom to aid some(for example Iraq, Yogoslavia), while simultaneously allowing freedom to robbed by other groups (for example Rwanda, South America).

    Whether you agree (or not) with an overseas affair probably has nothing to do with your ‘morals’ or ‘strategery’ than with:
    partisan affiliation
    view of entrenched peoples,
    effects or personal/national gain

    But saying so is political suicide. Presidents want to look Bold and Altruistic when they help, but ignore the situations that don’t fit in the above paradigm.

  6. I would add to alchemist’s list:

    perceived threat of negative outcomes.

    I’m most concerned that what is being billed as an insurgency movement is merely a tribal civil war and that supporting the rebels with half measures will only end up getting as many people killed as were theoretically saved, and that our understandable unwillingness to put boots on the ground poses the risk of replacing one strong man rule with either another or two.

    I’m officialy of “no opinion” on this thing.

  7. My biggest critique with Obama on this is how off the cuff he has done it. He didn’t have his Congressional ducks lined up- he didn’t need them then but he may well wish he had if this thing drags on. This is absolutely ‘Obama’s War’ and that’s an unforced error, he could have spent the weeks before the attack rounding up congressional support so he could get some more finger prints on the thing. As it is, Obama will get the blame if an airliner goes down with a Libyan bomb aboard (true, he’ll garner the praise if this ends well somehow).

    There is no strategic vision here, or even a victory condition. Holding on to the hope of Ghadafi being overthrown by his toadies is no strategy at all, and the fact that Obama seems to believe that this is our way out is more disturbing to me than anything else I’ve seen from him. Hope is not a plan, and dictators are always ‘on the cusp’ of overthrow.

    Finally the lack of any doctrine or larger principle behind this act is both troubling and disappointing. Instead of giving pause to other actors around the world, it may embolden them. Assad in Syria should be sweating bullets right now, and to the contrary he must feel very confident he has no reason to fear being next in the crosshairs. Even if we have no intention of going next to Syria, Assad doesn’t need to be sure of that.

  8. The problem is not having or not having a doctrine. the problem is entering into a civil war in the first place.

    Let’s step back a bit and look at this not in terms of our interests, (Which, by the way it is not) but in terms of minding our own business. We are not responsible for every sparrow that falls from the sky.

    As far as doctrine is concerned, W’s worked out just fine. A decade and counting of war to no seeming purpose. an on going occupation, instability in the region, the strengthening of Iran. That doctrine worked out really well.

    Neither this administration nor the one that preceded it had anything close to a clue about the region. We now are involved in three conflicts in the Muslim world, two for a decade.

    Now that takes real genius!!

  9. _”I think our Isreali client state is doing a bang up job with Syria, why not leave it at that?”_

    Because Israel is being enclosed in an ever tighter ring of rockets and missiles and several of their arch foes are developing nuclear weapons… less a couple that Bush and his crazy neocons took out of play (one being Libya).

    This argument is so silly because it always posits that we dont really have any vital interests in the region when in fact we do, and they are routinely threatened. Should we have let Iraq have Kuwait? Iran have the Persian Gulf? Afghanistan continue to house Bin Ladin?

    I love this ‘I’m not an isolationist i just don’t believe in doing anything’ nonsense. All it really amounts to is waiting until something particularly bad has already happened before hoping you can pick up the pieces.

  10. My back of the envelope calculation was roughly $260 in aid per Israeli and $182 in aid per Palestinian for FY 2010.

    Anyhow, I’m a little perplexed as to how any questioning of the worth of interventionism is equated to isolationism. Are the Chinese, Russians, Indians, Brazilians, Germans, etc all isolationists?

  11. Which led to an indefinite quantity of US forces tied down in the region for years to keep Hussein in line… which was one of the rationale used by OBL in his 911 attacks if it matters. It also led us to the great uncertainty game of WMDs and terrorist activities that brought us to gulf war 2, supported by republicans and democrats alike by the way (and scary neocons of course). Say what you want about Iraq, we aren’t wondering what Hussein is up to while his missiles fly after our jets on a day to day basis any more. And his oil spigot isnt being turned on and off as he jacks the world around and makes the West look like toothless chumps either.

  12. And playing the ‘Israel will be fine’ game will continue to work until it stops working. The Arabs only have to be lucky once, Israel had better be lucky every time.

  13. Assad in Syria should be sweating bullets right now, and to the contrary he must feel very confident he has no reason to fear being next in the crosshairs. Even if we have no intention of going next to Syria, Assad doesn’t need to be sure of that.

    *This is absolute madness!!*

  14. Mark,

    Who is an isolationist? Anyone who doesn’t thinks we should be threatening regimes we don’t like with regime change?

    Tell me how our interests have been served by having troops in Afghanistan and Iraq for the past ten years?

    Tell me how well you think the occupations and nation building is going in these places?

    Tell me how the underlying Wilsonian nonsense of making the world safe for democracy and nation building is working there?

    Tell me what you think the outcome of a decade of treasure and blood spent in these areas will be? Democracy? Pro-Western and pro-American sentiments.

    Your idea of Foreign Policy appears to be that of the laughable and discredited Neo-Cons.

    Give us a break. No one in their right mind wants to send yet another expeditionary force to Syria, and syria already knows that, long before the Obama Doctrine.

    Nor does anyone in their right mind care to sort out deeply entrenched political and social problems in the the Arab world. Our Secretary of Defense has said as much, and remember he was the one that was left to clean up the Neo-Con mess.

    How about letting these dysfunctional societies work out their own problems, instead of having us wasting our time, lives and money doing it.

    I think our Isreali client state is doing a bang up job with Syria, why not leave it at that?

  15. The problem, toc, is that I can’t run two parallel histories in a lab and see how they come out when I change one of them.

    We have no idea what Iran would have been doing had the last decade been one of American and Western non-intervention in the ME, and we have no idea how well (or badly) AQ and its movement allies would have been doing had we simply left them alone.

    And why is Israel our client state, and not the Palestinians? We probably give the Palestinians more money per capita (I need to go look that up…)…


  16. The Chinese and Russians certainly aren’t (ask the Georgians, Taiwanese, or North Koreans). The Indians have been to war with China, Pakistan, and fought over Sri Lanka for decades. The Brazilians and Germans are non-factors in world geo-politics, by choice.

    So to answer you inferred question, I think you are either an interventionalist (which isn’t to say you will intervene on every occasion, but instead to mean you _will_ intervene given cause), or you are an isolationist and a non-factor. Moreover you can only choose the latter option given other powers taking up the slack on your behest (essentially, they are free riders).

    The world does not take care of itself, and it is myopic, indeed historically unsupportable to argue that everybody minding their own business is realistic or even desirable. Sooner or later (and generally sooner), something lands on your doorstep that you can’t or won’t ignore. Pretending otherwise just ensures that the bill shows up rather unexpectedly leaving you hoping you will have the wherewithal to pay it.

    If there is a middle path, i’m all ears, but to me it sounds like being a little bit pregnant. We can argue about how much we want to involve ourselves, but arguing whether we _should_ be involved is just unserious.

  17. Nor can I. Nor can anybody else, but that is not the point. We can take a look at the outcomes of what we *have* done though.

    From my perspective, it has not been very successful and has not been very intelligent. The Secretary of Defense, who I don’t think is an isolationist agrees. He said that anyone suggesting that we fight land wars in Asia or North Africa should have their head examined, yet people have this knee-jerk reaction and delusion that all we have to do is throw our weight around and everything will work out fine. This is supposed to be a substitute for brains in Foreign Policy.

    If you say anything different you are an “isolationist”. No one has been an isolationist since superman died. Maybe Mark should start calling me a Jacobin or a Quisling?

    Isreal is as secure as it ever has been considering the geographical position they are in.

    They have the absolute backing of the worlds only super power, that the President delivered in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world.

    They have a deeply entwined military research programm with the United States, with whom they share equipment, as up to date as any of our allies.

    They destroyed the Syrian Reactor with hardly a peep out of the non muslim world, sent a virus into the Iranian nuclear programme that has set it back for years and is now witnessing a collapse and division among its enemies.

    Could things be better? sure.

    Going by Marks definition of Foreign Affairs, maybe we should invade Syria, how about leveling Iran, or better yet having him rein in his paranoia. The world is full of risks, the trick is to judge how dangerous each is and deal with them as is necessary. I do not see any of this in Mark’s schoolboy view of the world.

    We are already spread thinly without becoming embroiled in more local problems. Libya is primarily a European problem.

    And, looking ahead, with the situation in the Arab world as unstable as it is, it might just be prudent to save our strength in case something really serious happens.

    Libya and Syria, I do not consider serious for the United States and our vital interests, the Gulf is another matter.

  18. *And why is Israel our client state, and not the Palestinians?*

    CLIENT STATE: A country that depends on another country for military, economic, or political support

    Well, first off, the Palestinians are not a state. When and if they do become a state we will do our best to make them into one.

    Mike DC says we are already making a Herculean effort in that regard.

    *My back of the envelope calculation was roughly $260 in aid per Israeli and $182 in aid per Palestinian for FY 2010.*

    Israel’s importance to us geopolitically is what the Levant has been since the beginnings of Civilization. It is the hub that joins Europe, Asia and Africa. therefore it is a place from where you can project Power and guard vital interests. this is why the Brits wound up with it rather than the French.

    Israel, geopolitically, from the U.S. point of view, is politically stable, dependent upon us and a place from which we can project Power into the Gulf and protect the Suez Canal. I explained that a few years ago here but most people thought I was nuts, saying things like the Arabs would never allow it.

    Very naive, especially now that the Gulf is experiencing political turmoil and the Isreali “Aircraft Carrier” is looking more and more like the incredible asset it is.

    Isreal is, of course not our only Client state. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines form a nice semi-circle of clients States that hem in China. They used to be complimented by South Viet-Nam and the Base at Cam Rahn Bay. These allow us to dominate the Pacific, especially the the Straights of Mallaca, soon, if not already the most important waterway in the world as far as trade is concerned. It was for control of these straights and Malayan rubber and the oil fields of Brunei that the British decided to found Singapore and the Japanese seized it.

    Isrealis are well aware of their status, they don’t particularly like it, but such is life.

  19. *Should we have let Iraq have Kuwait?*

    That brilliant piece of Foreign Policy, building a real Coalition, Limiting objectives, not going towards Baghdad, not occupying Iraq was exactly what the Neo-Cons objected to in Bush 1’s foreign Policy

    Would had his son been as visionary and mature. This is Republican Foreign Policy. Thoughtful, reasoned and above all, not impetuous. Unfortunately, that changed with the Neo-Cons came into fashion.

  20. Well mark,

    You may just want not to look at this and act like you didn’t see it but here are the statistics on the prices of the actions we have take on in the recent past on a conflict by conflict basis.
    Sources: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Congressional Research Service

    If you find more reputable sources, that contradict them, please make me aware of them.

    *The estimate comparing the annual cost of the Iraq no fly zone and the Iraq Occupation is that the Annual occupation costs exceed the annual No Fly cost by a factor of 69.5!!*

    Quite frankly I was stunned

    *It also led us to the great uncertainty game of WMDs and terrorist activities that brought us to gulf war 2*

    Is that you logic for going to war in Iraq, A Great Uncertainty Game of WMD’S?

    Both the Democrats and Republicans supported it?

    I think you have to have more than Uncertainty and the Democrats to send a force towards war. Nor only that, you should have more of an idea of what you are getting into. Bush 1 did, the NeoCons didn’t.

    I never thought of the NeoCons as Scary, just naive and dangerous in that naiveté. My feelings towards them have been consistent since I started posting here and long before the Iraq disaster. But that is another story

    Bush 1’s policy towards Iraq was brilliant, Bush 2’s decision to invade occupy and nation build was and incredible blunder. Please tell me what we have gained from the threat that took us 2 weeks to destroy utterly?

    Please balance it against the cost.

    One other thing, tell me how many troops deployed for the no fly Zone, how many were killed and then give me the annual ratios against what has happened annually in Iraq.

    I would be quite impressed if you could turn this Sow’s Ear fiasco into a Silk Purse. It would be quite a trick.

  21. *And playing the ‘Israel will be fine’ game will continue to work until it stops working. The Arabs only have to be lucky once, Israel had better be lucky every time.*

    Mark as Branch Rickey, one of the 20th Century’s great geniuses (invented the Farm System as GM of the St Louis Cardinals a baseball math worthy of Einstein (Addition by Subtraction)and integrated the Baseball as GM of The Brooklyn Dodgers once said, “Luck is the Residue of Design.

    Take a look at this film and it will tell you just how well the U.S. and Israel are collaborating to insure Israel’s safety and stability in the Region, incredibly effectively and without sending so much as one soldier and without firing so much as one bullet.

    I recommend this to everyone. Great Clip

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