Adam Garfinkle, the editor of the print edition of The American Interest has written two brilliant essays on the “days not weeks” war in Libya — the first at the beginning, the second just published today. Both essays are required reading; good intentions and weak analysis mixed with wishful thinking frequently get the United States into trouble around the world. The Libyan adventure is a textbook case. By nature I’m more optimistic than Adam; sometimes the surprises work in your favor and if the US has gotten into trouble over the years we’ve also displayed a Mr. Magoo like capacity for walking out of trouble relatively unscathed. But without a sudden dose of unmerited good luck, we are headed down the road that Adam describes.
There are rules in places like Libya, but they are different from the rules applied in Europe in recent centuries. The main rule when one tribe or one tribal confederacy conquers another is that the defeated party is politically, socially, economically and, often to some extent, literally decapitated. The defeat must be total, unmistakable and irreparable. That is the best way, indeed, in many cases the only way, to make sure that the rank-and-file of the defeated group will not find some way to rise up again in revenge.Now what does this mean in the Libyan case? It means that if the rebels centered in Benghazi are going to overthrow by force of arms the Gaddafi regime, they are going to have to fight for Tripoli, possibly down to the last square block of the regime’s stronghold. Gaddafi and his tribal loyalists and allies will not surrender peaceably. There is therefore going to be, quite possibly, a crimsoned slaughter of the civilian population of Tripoli.I do not know this for certain, but neither did the Obama Administration know for certain five months ago that there was going to be a slaughter in Benghazi. There are reasons for thinking that the likelihood of the slaughter in Benghazi was far lower than the likelihood of a slaughter coming soon in Tripoli. Gaddafi may have thought back then that just the threat of mass violence could dissipate the rebellion, or weaken it fatally.
If the Obama Administration intervened in the first place to prevent mass murder against Libyan civilians in Benghazi—and on this point I take the Administration at its word—what will it do to prevent mass murder against Libyan civilians in Tripoli? Will NATO forces now suddenly switch sides, and begin suppressing the military activities of the Benghazi rebels it has been supporting and trying to build up for the past five months? That would be logically consistent in terms of the way the Administration does its moral reasoning; it is also completely unthinkable under present circumstances.So perhaps the Administration and its NATO allies will try instead to simply persuade the rebels not to be brutal when the triumphal end of their campaign comes into sight (assuming it does). If they succeed in that task, highly unlikely though it is, the result will be to further prolong the war and muddle the possibility of a definitive endpoint. That would be inane, if not insane.I don’t really know what they will do. I can’t wait to find out. All I know is that when a government engages in military activity on the basis of a nonsensical premise, there is a price to be paid always down the road. We are now pretty much down the road.
Please, read the whole thing. And then read his first essay, written at the start of the war. The Great Loon will be gone, but I’m reminded of a slogan people saw on the walls of bombed out and starving Berlin in the last war winter of 1945: “Enjoy the war. Peace will be terrible.”