Libyan protesters asked for help, but the military attacks they’re getting may actually create a whole new set of problems that could last a very long time.
The United States and its allies launched the war against Libya on the eighth anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. President Barack Obama says the U.S. will transfer command authority very soon, that military action should be over in “days, not weeks,” and that he wants no boots on the ground. But the parallels with other U.S. wars in the Middle East don’t bode well.
The Pentagon may indeed transfer its command to some other military leadership. But what happens when London and Paris decide they don’t have sufficient weaponry, or can’t afford it any longer–what will President Obama do then? And what about that “no U.S. troops on the ground” line? Forget about it. When the first F-15 warplane went down on Sunday, one of the airmen was picked up by Libyan opposition supporters and turned over to unidentified “U.S. forces”–who must have been on the ground as part of a rescue arrangement.
The people of Libya, like those in neighboring countries who also rose up to challenge brutal dictatorships, are paying a huge price for their resistance. Unlike the others, the Libyan uprising quickly became an armed battle, with Gaddafi’s side far more powerful. The need to support the out-gunned protesters was very real.
Libyan activists themselves said they wanted intervention by the international community. But what they got may have far different results than they sought. Despite their exultation over the first destroyed tanks, questions loom. The United Nations’ intent is to protect civilians from those tanks. But according to The New York Times, “many of the tanks seemed to have been retreating”–just what the UN resolution required. That happened in 1991, too, when a column of retreating Iraqi tanks and troops leaving Kuwait was attacked by U.S. warplanes whose pilots called it “a turkey shoot.”
Why do we think another U.S.-led western attack against another Middle Eastern country will lead to democracy? What’s the end game? What if a stalemate leaves Libya divided, with military attacks continuing? The UN resolution is very clear that military force can only be used to protect Libyan civilians, but the Western powers have simultaneously made clear that their real political goal is regime change–ousting Muammar Gaddafi. Ironically, by stating Gaddafi has “lost his legitimacy,” western leaders are dramatically narrowing the space for negotiations which could provide for a more peaceful removal of the Libyan leader. And what if these attacks lead to an escalating, rather than diminishing, civil war?
The Pentagon’s official position is that U.S. military involvement in Libya matches the UN resolution–we’re only protecting civilians. How will that work if air strikes continue against military targets that happen to be located in the middle of Libyan cities? And how is anyone supposed to believe that protecting civilians is really the Pentagon’s only goal when their Commander in Chief says Gaddafi must go?
In Iraq, a protracted no-fly zone directly caused hundreds of civilian casualties. What if that happens in Libya? Already, during the pilot’s rescue, at least six Libyan civilians were shot by U.S. forces–one of them a little boy who will probably lose his leg. If such casualties continue, how long will Libyans continue to support the western intervention?
Back here at home, there’s the gnawing question of how we can afford a third U.S. war in North Africa and the Middle East. The first day, U.S. gunships fired 110 Tomahawk missiles. They cost $1 million each. That’s $110 million just for the missiles, not counting the ships, the planes, the bombs, the pilots…We could have used that $110 million to create 2,200 new green jobs instead.
The UN itself acknowledged that this could be the beginning of a very long war. The resolution asks the secretary-general to report on military developments in Libya “within seven days and every month thereafter.” So much for “days, not weeks.”
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN.