Lost in Libya: The U.K. Does Not Understand Strategy

Lost in Libya: The U.K. Does Not Understand Strategy by Dr. Patrick Porter, Infinity Journal (free registration required). BLUF: "The limited war of 2011 would refuse to be quarantined. After all other options were exhausted, it could culminate in a land war against Tripoli. Distressingly, we would shoulder the burden of invading, pacifying and administering this country. Occupation would probably lead to resistance -- and Libya propelled more foreign-born jihadi volunteers into Iraq than any other nation. A new front in the War on Terror would open up. Idealists now calling for humanitarian rescue would discover that all along they opposed Western imperial hubris."

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To wrap up, Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune is transparently dishonest in his argument. He takes a quote from Obama, "We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi -- a city nearly the size of Charlotte (N.C.) -- could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world" to imply that the administration feared the entire population of the city would be killed, and then proceeds to argue against the likelihood of this, but that's obviously not what Obama's words mean.

A massacre does not imply the elimination of all those present. The Peterloo Massacre resulted in the deaths of 15 people out of a crowd of 60,000 or more. Protesters in Libya have seen far worse, and the word massacre is wholly appropriate.

The distortion in the Kuperman piece is really disturbing. He cites a New York Times article as follows: "The New York Times reported that violence threatening Libya's civilians was 'provoked by rebels,'" but the article he links to details not just one incident in Zawiyah "arguably provoked by rebels" but also another in Zawiyah "described as a 'massacre' by rebel witnesses," where Gaddafi forces "took aim at a group of unarmed protesters who attempted to march through the militia lines toward the capital." The same article describes two events in Tripoli where unarmed protesters were shot.

There is of course lots more reporting from established news organisations available online to counter Kuperman's selective cherrypicking, and now we also have ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo saying he has evidence that Gaddafi had a plan authorising killing of protesters prepared even before unrest spread from Tunisia and Egypt.

Kuperman's thesis, "armed uprisings, such as Libya's, typically provoke massive state retaliation that harms innocents" and "by contrast, non-violent movements, as in Egypt and Tunisia, rarely trigger so brutal a response," does not fit the sequence of events in Libya, no matter how hard he tries to shoehorn it in.

That USA Today piece by Alan J. Kuperman you link to is rather selective in its quoting of Dugi Gorani. He writes:

In Kosovo, a senior ethnic Albanian official, Dugi Gorani, confessed on BBC: "The more civilians were killed, the chances of international intervention became bigger, and the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) of course realized that."

From the transcript the article links to:

DUGI GORANI
KOSOVO ALBANIAN NEGOTIATOR
With Racak, and with lots of others, the Serbs were playing into KLA hands. It will remain I would say an eternal dilemma whether the KLA initiated these battles in the civilian inhabited areas because it knew that the Serbs will retaliate on them. Personally I don't think so, but of course, it was a war.

On "no-fly zones and liberal interventionism ... incentivising rebel groups to provoke retaliation" I am morbidly curious to see specific examples of what you have in mind.

If the video isn't clear enough, Cameron's reply to Corbyn can be read in Hansard, 18 Mar 2011 : Column 619.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm110318/debt...

The differences he points to in Libya versus other cases:

1) ".. a people rising up against their leaders and wanting a more democratic future, and then us watching as, potentially, those people are destroyed by that dictator."

Comparing gruesome events has the danger of making one sound callous, but appalling as the repression has been in Bahrain, the number of deaths has been nowhere near the scale in Libya prior to the UNSC resolution authorising action, nor have the protests there amounted to an uprising in the same sense.

2) "coming together here is Britain acting with others in favour of international law and international governance and the UN"

The necessary support for action in Libya existed in the UNSC, due in part to the Arab League and Libyan UN representatives supporting action, thus paving the way for abstention by China. This would of course not have happened on Bahrain.

3 & 4) "it is not in our national interest for this man to lead a pariah state on the southern banks of Europe"

3, The extreme action by Gaddafi made it politically impossible to return to a policy of engagement, an thus if he prevailed, a resurgence of his earlier destabilising actions against the West as well as elsewhere would be a hight risk.

4, geography, Libya is not in the Persian Gulf, and has potentially a very immediate impact on Europe.

ok, we're not going to agree so I'll throw this in and then keep quiet. don't want to bore the readers.

on Cameron's answer: you are easily pleased. He doesn't specify why its different in Bahrain, where the state is also oppressing people rising up for a more democratic society. He just doesn't. He calls the Libyan regime a pariah state oppressing its people. Which, in the region, is like handing out speeding tickets at the Grand Prix. I don't mind the argument that we should intervene sometimes even though we can't always, but I want a rigorous, measured theory about why one case is more compelling than another.

On preemption: we misunderstand each other a bit here. My main point on this was to warn against having a strategy that tries to prevent instability regularly by anticipating the future. I'm simply saying, as most intelligence theorists would agree, that this is almost impossible in the case of revolutions. This was just a side note in the article, given that 'upstream' prevention is now part of UK NSS.

Which comes to my next point: Iraq, Bosnia and other historical cases worry me because they show where no-fly zones and liberal interventionism can lead. Which is fuelling chaos, incentivising rebel groups to provoke retaliation, and unintended long-term diplomatic commitments. This is not doomsday - it is a historical pattern.

On what's happening in Libya specifically: you seem certain that Gaddafi was engaged in serial killing of unarmed civilians, and was about to commit a massacre. You might read the following, which cast serious doubt on it. It seems from this distance to look like a civil war between armed groups, not an imminent genocide or deliberate mass murder of innocent civilians. His declared intentions, from what I can tell, were to do with armed rebels in Benghazi. However, this could be wrong and I'm open to being persuaded otherwise. But read this:

http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-03-22-column22_ST_N.htm

and

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/ct-oped-0403-chapman-20110...

Our intervention may well make massacres more likely now, not less likely.

anyway, its all a bit difficult and we can disagree obviously about whether or not on balance to intervene. But the thrust of my article was to do with our own capacity for strategic judgment. Given that we seem to have acted here without sober consideration of the many many dilemmas this raises, I remain worried.

Damn, getting too (two) particular.

On "fighting the last war", my main reason for that comment is your focus on preemption, a key point in arguments over Iraq, but not applicable here, and my inclination to make the comment was reinforced by your doomsday scenario for Libya seeming to be a mere carbon copy of Iraq, and not particularly informed by the particulars of the conflict in Libya.

On Cameron, if you watch the clip, he does go on to talk about why Libya is different to other cases like Bahrain, which was named in the question he was answering.

I think you stretch the meaning of preemptive beyond breaking point. Mass killing by Gaddafi was already underway. He had declared his intentions regarding Benghazi, and had begun action which was ongoing when the resolution was passed and when French planes first struck. No wild speculation was involved. The intervention was undertaken to alter the outcome of an ongoing conflict, not to anticipate a potential conflict.

I really don't see that you have a case that the policy depends on anticipating or predicting revolutions, as again, the revolutions came first, UK, French, US policy came after.

Hey Kellie,

some good challenges there. You'll forgive me if I respond just quickly to a few points. You clearly have difficulty understanding some of my points. And you speculate rather a lot in your comments, rather than reading what i say.

"Altogether, he sounds like he's still fighting the last war."
I'm curious. Is it your position that we shouldn't be more cautious about liberal interventionism since the Iraq catastrophe, or that we should pretend the last 20 years haven't happened, where no fly zones have preceded escalation, war and unanticipated civilian deaths? It sounds like you don't think we should reflect on these crises historically, and just roll the dice in the hope that it will work out well this time. That's a little naive, surely?

"Criticising the prospect of "a limited intervention that is not enough to overthrow Gaddafi" ignores the fact that the intervening governments are politically committed to his removal."
Not quite what I said. My point is that our limited intervention may not be enough to overthrow him, despite our wishes, and that this could create a growing diplomatic crisis for us, and that we seem unprepared for this. I'm keen to hear your view on how this is wrong?

"His argument that it's unwise "to model our national security strategy around being anticipatory" ignores that this intervention was reactive, not preemptive."

our intervention did respond to increasing instability in Libya, but was also in part preemptive. As President Obama and others have stated, we intervened to prevent an expected massacre. In Cameron's words, we averted a 'bloody massacre.' 'Avert' pertains to the future.

But my main point there is that our intelligence agencies couldn't predict it, and that our general national security strategy can't rely too much on anticipating what is inherently almost impossible to predict - in this case, revolutions.

"His point on life being full of surprises is just perplexing, as he sounds if he wants to argue that the massive instability in the existing political systems in the area is a reason to try to hold on to the failing status quo."
Sorry, I didn't say that. I meant what I said - that strategy often has to respond rather than anticipate. I agree that we can't hold the status quo, but don't think ill-conceived vigilantism is the best way to change it.

Actually Cameron has argued precisely that in the House of Commons, saying "just because we can't do the right thing everywhere, doesn't mean we shouldn't do the right thing somewhere."
True, but Cameron has also said that we cannot allow a tyrant to butcher his own, and has not indicated why this matters more in Libya than in Bahrain.

Finally, you're right, my wording on the Gulf was clumsy - I was trying to link this to the general issue of authoritarian states in the overlapping Gulf/Arab world.

Dr. Patrick Porter seems to think Libya is in the Persian Gulf: " We manage to live with atrocious states elsewhere in the Gulf..."

He misrepresents UK Government arguments, writing" It may be that there is a case for selective liberal vigilantism, that in our internationalism we should act where we can even if we often cannot. But that is not the governments public argument."

Actually Cameron has argued precisely that in the House of Commons, saying "just because we can't do the right thing everywhere, doesn't mean we shouldn't do the right thing somewhere."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN9Gk9Nolcs

Porter's paragraph saying "To promote human rights is not necessarily to promote stability" glosses over the fact that Libya had become unstable prior to intervention, and that the status quo was no longer recoverable.

Criticising the prospect of "a limited intervention that is not enough to overthrow Gaddafi" ignores the fact that the intervening governments are politically committed to his removal.

His point on life being full of surprises is just perplexing, as he sounds if he wants to argue that the massive instability in the existing political systems in the area is a reason to try to hold on to the failing status quo.

His argument that it's unwise "to model our national security strategy around being anticipatory" ignores that this intervention was reactive, not preemptive.

Altogether, he sounds like he's still fighting the last war.