Friday, May 27, 2011

Regime change in Libya

So, Matt Yglesias wrote a post about mission creep in Libya. After noting that NATO's limited campaign to protect rebel lives is logically sound, he claims that the military objectives have nonetheless expanded beyond the original humanitarian mission:
This policy, while logically coherent, is basically impossible to operationalize and in practice the military intervention has been beyond humanitarian from the very get-go.
I agree with Matt that, in practice, despite NATO's protestations to the contrary, regime change has become both a diplomatic and military objective in Libya. But Matt's making a conceptual error here. He's envisioning humanitarian intervention as one objective, and then regime change as a second, independent objective; he's then suggesting that the US and its allies started out pursuing the former but has gradually transitioned towards pursuing the latter.

Matt seems to be misunderstanding the relationship between these two goals. In Libya, the push towards regime change is actually derived from the primary goal, which remains "protecting the rebels and their cities."

The reasoning is simple enough. So long as Qaddafi is bent on slaughtering the opposition, the only way to protect people in rebel cities is to ensure that the rebels don't lose the war. And if neither side is willing to accept a stalemate, the only way to ensure they don't lose the war is to ensure they win the war. And if the only victory condition the rebels will accept is that Qaddafi steps down, then achieving the first-order objective of protecting rebel cities requires some form of regime change. The logic is quite straightforward, and moreover, has been basically imposed on NATO by events outside of its control.

The question we have to ask, then, is whether there's any sign that regime change has become a military objective existing independently of this chain of reasoning. In other words, it's important to know whether regime change has become an end of its own, rather than a means for a greater humanitarian purpose. What would that look like? Presumably, it would entail military action designed to effectuate regime change pursued independently of rebel progress (or failure) in the ground war. Some potential clues: extensive strikes on Tripoli regardless of the progress of the rebel front; troops on the ground, especially outside of rebel-held areas; and most significantly, pressure from NATO to continue the war even if a negotiated solution or divided Libya started to look like a possibility.

Have we seen any of these things? Not really. In fact, the war in Libya has remained more-or-less what it was when it began: NATO planes bombing Qaddafi forces on or near the front lines. The targets have certainly shifted a bit as the war has progressed. Still, it seems that strikes against Tripoli itself remain unusual. Nor does it seem like there have been real attempts to launch some sort of decapitation strike against Qaddafi's government. And there's certainly been zero indication that NATO would conduct attacks if a peace settlement were likely -- which is not to suggest that a settlement has actually seemed likely at any point.

So you have to wonder if there's something bothering Matt (and other liberal bloggers) besides the oft-predicted, little-seen expansion of the war.

I think so. I think they have a problem with something else entirely: after Iraq, they still support humanitarian intervention, but they're gun-shy about regime change. So much so, in fact, that they'll oppose humanitarian intervention if intervention requires regime change.

Like them, I support humanitarian intervention and oppose regime change. But I come out the other way when the two appear side-by-side. If humanitarian intervention is otherwise practical and necessary, I won't oppose it just because it might entail some form of regime change. And in Libya, there are just too many lives immediately at risk to let Qaddafi win.

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