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Libya and the Question of Intervention

by on March 6, 2011

There is a contentious debate underway on the merits, tactics, and necessity of foreign intervention in the crisis in Libya, a crisis increasingly taking the form of a civil war.  If permitted to simplify the debate into two simple narratives, there are those mightily proclaiming responsibility for the well being of Libyans through implementation of a no-fly-zone, and those who insist the fight be deferred to the Libyans revolting against Gaddafi.

This would be a neat debate to have if there was a decisively clear message from the Libyan revolutionaries. This is not  the case. Saturday, the National Libyan Council repeated a request for “foreign air strikes to help dislodge” Gaddafi and his regime.  This followed a statement days earlier by a rebel spokesman saying there was no need for “any foreign intervention or military operation.”

It would be easy to defer to the latest statement by The National Libyan Council but even that has its perils. The Council is operating out of Benghazi and its authority over the revolution is in question. The recent offensive by rebels against Gaddafi forces in the East illustrates this key problem. Rebels would launch attacks on impulse while military defectors desperately tried to assert a coherent strategy to the attacks.  Fortunately, this breakdown in command, or lack of command, hasn’t yet resulted in decisive military defeats of the rebels.

Even if the National Libyan Council has decisively called for foreign intervention, their mandate to make such a request is in doubt. This is a thirty member council chaired by Gaddafi’s former justice minister who defected days into the revolution. What a questionable leadership in Benghazi says about foreign airstrikes may not carry well with the rebels fighting on the streets who fear any American intervention would steal their revolution.

It is my personal desire to see Libya shake free of Gaddafi’s rule through protests and popular armed struggle when necessary.  I question calls by U.S. senators for intervention, fearing it is an attempt to reassert American influence in a region where U.S. allies have fallen in Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon so far this year. However, if the moment comes when there is a decisive call by Libya’s revolutionaries for explicit foreign military operations against designated regime targets, I’ll stand by their judgement as every outside observer should.

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