Monday, March 28, 2011

the other cost of the libyan operation

one of the many problems with intervening militarily in libya is that from that point onward, the obama administration is going to have to explain why they are not intervening in other places.

although i am against u.s. intervention in libya, the consistency argument isn't the reason i'm opposed to it. when deciding how to respond to a crisis the u.s. always has to consider how the actions it could take will affect its various interests. libya is different from most other countries because qadhafi had pissed off just about everyone1 the u.s., france and the UK can bomb his forces with fewer consequences than they would have to face if they bombed somewhere else. in that sense, treating libya and syria (or libya and bahrain) differently is not inconsistent, the weighing of interests just plays out differently in different places. because of libya's relative diplomatic isolation, it is the low-hanging fruit of military interventions.

but those comparisons still pose a political problem for the administration. because when asked why the u.s. is bombing libya and not syria, secretary of state clinton can't just say, "libya is the low hanging fruit." military campaigns are always wrapped up in moral language. this operation is allegedly to protect civilians in rebel-held areas. i do think that is one of the actual motives behind the bombing, but just one of them. so is the fact that other countries that the u.s. has important ties with don't like qadhafi and would like to see him go. it's hard for the administration to say out loud that we are doing something in libya because an absolute monarch sitting on top of the world's largest oil reserve gave his blessing to that operation and it is very unlikely that he would give the same blessing for syria. it's also hard to say that syria is next to iraq and israel and bombing syria will have large negative repercussions in those countries that the u.s. has already invested so much.

so instead hillary clinton tried to distinguish syria and libya by claiming that the syrian regime is not as bad. which is far from clear, and opens the administration up to all kinds of ridicule (especially if the asad regime continues to slaughter protesters). but i don't think there's any other thing they can get away with politically. the ridicule is just another cost of this war that they must bear.

1- except for countries in sub-sahara aftica. but the u.s. (like other western powers) doesn't pay much attention to their concerns as there's not much they can do to make things more difficult for the u.s. later on. the bombing campaign is unpopular in, for example, mali. but no one expects this to affect u.s.-malian or (the more close) french-malian relations all that much.