Going all in

By Yaroslav Mikhaylov


If you are going to do something you have to see it through to the end.

This is especially true in cases of military intervention. The use of military force is by definition a commitment. Therefore, one should be skeptical of any form of intervention that involves deploying military hardware and personnel but claims to avoid commitment and entanglement. A no-fly zone and limited air support in Libya is just that. Its proponents state that it carries all the benefits of a full-scale military intervention – a friendly or at least marginally less crazy regime, without its drawbacks – sending troops into yet another Middle Eastern country with no clear long-term plan. In fact, now that the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces have taken aggressive actions against the Qaddafi regime, they have already committed themselves as friendly to the rebels and opposed to the current government. Now, NATO and the U.S. can only win this conflict with the rebels or lose it together with them.

A no-fly zone is already an intervention. Because the government in Tripoli has more combat aircraft than rebels, instituting a no-fly zone will improve the rebel movement’s chances for victory. That establishes NATO and the U.S. as enemies of the Qaddafi regime. If Qaddafi manages to crush the rebel movement and retain control of the country despite Western interference, he is unlikely to return to cordial relations with nations that opposed him and will instead offer his allegiance and Libya’s oil to other allies such as China or India. Therefore, there is no diplomatic benefit to a no-fly zone over a full-scale military intervention. Furthermore, the global diplomatic outlook also now associates the NATO coalition with the rebel forces. Other nations supporting the rebel forces will hold the coalition liable if the rebels fail because it was unwilling to offer more aid than a simple no-fly zone. And the international opponents of the intervention already view it as an intervention. Politically speaking, NATO is essentially an ally of the fledgling Libyan provisional national council.

However, the rebel forces can’t win this conflict on their own. This was shown when, immediately after NATO airstrikes on Qaddafi forces near Benghazi, the rebel forces took the city easily, only to be driven out once NATO air support ended. Because the U.S. and NATO are already committed to the intervention, they need to take more aggressive actions to support the rebel cause. Without active attacks on Qaddafi positions, the rebellion has no hopes of reaching Tripoli, Libya’s capital, much less taking control of it. While this may seem like a violation of the original reason for the no-fly zone, which was preventing further civilian deaths in the conflict, it also will avoid a long and drawn-out civil war. Should the rebels’ Western allies take an active role in the military actions against Qaddafi’s supporters, it is likely Qaddafi will simply seek to capitulate. Should any one of the major NATO states actually bring the full weight of their armed forces down on Libya, Qaddafi’s armies would be destroyed in days. Just the fear of such a confrontation is likely to convince most of his supporters and possibly even Qaddafi himself to give in to the rebel forces. And so, the actual application of overwhelming force can be avoided. But as long as a full-scale intervention seems unlikely, prolonged civil war seems inevitable.

Finally, a direct intervention will allow NATO and the U.S. more control over the conflict’s aftermath. If the current situation is left to stand, and the rebel forces somehow manage to seize power in Tripoli, what they will do with this power remains unknown. The rebel factions committed to democracy might remain in control, or power might pass to a radical Islamist or Communist faction, or another military strongman might institute a dictatorship similar to Qaddafi’s. Without a Western presence on the ground, a democratic Libya might be as far out of reach as it was a year ago. Furthermore, the allies will have no control over how Qaddafi’s supporters might be treated. If the victorious rebels decide to purge the supporters of the “Ancien Régime” in a bloody reign of terror, it will be nearly impossible for NATO to stop it without boots on the ground.

The current situation is untenable. NATO has taken all the risks associated with an intervention – international opposition, deployment of war material and political fallout in case of defeat, without any of the benefits of a real intervention – guarantee of success and oversight over the formation of a new government. Because the risks are already taken, the Western coalition should at least be in position to reap the rewards from those risks. Even a large-scale bombing campaign will significantly shorten this conflict and guarantee a rebel victory without endangering more American lives than this conflict already has. There was a time when the U.S. could have avoided commitment to Libya. That was a month ago. Now that the U.S. is part of the conflict, it is time for them and their NATO allies to do their part right.

Yaroslav Mikhaylov is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]t.umass.edu.