John Torpey writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
Looking After the Neighborhood in Libya
After much mischief and brutal behavior, the police have finally moved against a vicious druglord and troublemaker in a notoriously rough neighborhood. The beleaguered residents of the neighborhood have been gamely fighting back of late, but they probably can’t contend with the superior firepower of the gangland kingpin who runs the show where they live.
The gangster, of course, is Muammar el-Qaddafi, the drug is oil, and the neighborhood is the Arab Middle East. As with any use of violence by the police, there are many legitimate questions that should be raised about the intervention in this case. But amid all the concerns about what outside forces are doing in Libya, we should not miss one central point: we are witnessing the first true example of what has been called “global domestic policy.”
In a striking shift from the discredited policies and actions of the Bush era, the Obama administration has joined together with a coalition of the well-meaning to stop the potential shedding of a great deal of innocent Libyan blood. Far from the sham “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq in 2003, the alliance of forces moving against Colonel Qaddafi is as close to a global endeavor as one can realistically imagine.
The United Nations Security Council has voted, with some dissenters to be sure, to enjoin Qaddafi from slaughtering his citizens. The Arab League – some of whose members the Colonel has needlessly humiliated in the past – has invited outside forces to protect the country’s Arabs. The African Union has been a party to the discussions of the “contact group” meeting in London to develop strategies. Turkey, an increasingly important regional player, has been reassured that no Western occupation will ensue, and has thus been willing to accede to coalition plans. This is in part because “command and control” of the operation has been turned over to NATO, despite the complexities arising from this sort of joint military decision-making. And, of course, many among the opposition have pleaded for outside support.
While the United States is the entity best able to put forces in the field, others have insisted and President Obama agreed that Americans would not send in ground forces, would only be involved in the enterprise for “days, not weeks,” and that it would generally take a back seat with regard to the conduct of the effort. Indeed, Obama was extremely reticent about involving American forces in yet another Muslim country, and only came around after these other parties were committed and he became convinced that American power could be used for a good cause.
From the perspective of only a few years ago, all of this is quite remarkable. At least until the financial meltdown, oceans of ink were being spilled on the character and misadventures of “American empire.” Comparisons to Rome, the first empire spanning the entire world of which it knew, were rife. And the Bush administration seemed to live up to this comparison, seeing Iraq as a playground on which its fantasies of democratic nation-building could be carried out.
American military power remains overpowering, greater than that of all the rest of the world’s forces put together. Yet this is largely a technological matter of little relevance to the kinds of wars that are being fought today. Hence, like other rich societies, the United States can get along with an all-volunteer force rather than a mass conscript army. The wars that are now being fought are often going to be “wars of choice,” because no one in his right mind would attack the United States. These wars will be fought to tamp down conflict and violence in the world’s many rough neighborhoods.
Choosing which neighborhoods invite intervention will be guided by interests, of course. During the first Gulf War, protesters asked, “What if Kuwait’s main export was broccoli?” They had a point. There are many hard questions that should be asked about any use of military force. And questions of the abuse of power must always be answered; military intervention abroad is an intrinsically dubious proposition unless one is engaging with a force comprising a clear and present danger to oneself.
Still, we have turned a corner in international affairs with the Libya intervention. We will look back on it in future years as a return to the internationalism of the pre-Bush years and a re-dedication of American foreign policy to the international institutions it helped build up after World War II. The coalition forces can claim with good reason to have averted major loss of civilian life. The ghost of humanitarian failures past may finally be put to rest.
The difficulty now concerns what to do from here on in. Regime change is not the policy of the United States government, although everyone clearly wants Qaddafi out. Should we supply weapons to the rag-tag, untrained, and ill-armed rebels? This sort of step has a long and often counter-productive history in the annals of American foreign power; just recall the contras in Nicaragua and Osama bin Laden. We know practically nothing about who the rebels are and want they may ultimately want. The region is already awash in American arms. Arming the rebels looks like a very risky bet, but it is hard to leave them hanging as Qaddafi’s forces re-group and beat them back in various places.
Global domestic policy probably shouldn’t include handing out guns to lots of unknown forces, even if we may be heartbroken that the Libyan people can’t fight back as effectively as they might otherwise. If we supply them with weapons, the fight may start to look more like ours than theirs, and that may backfire down the road. But the coalition should surely provide intelligence, logistical, and political support, and hope that the neighbors can find a way to clean up the neighborhood as best they can.
John Torpey is Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.