A Problem of Legitimacy: The US Role in Libya

The Libyan rebels have apparently achieved control of almost all of Gadhafi’s last stronghold in the capital Tripoli, although some scattered fighting is still sporadically cropping up. While the whereabouts of Gadhafi are still unknown, the consensus seems to be that there is an effective fall of the regime, or will be very soon. The chairman of the National Transitional Council has announced as much. The mainstream media is depicting the rebel celebrations in the center of Tripoli as a jubilent  liberation and a victory for the rebels, already being “exploited by American war advocates to delegitimize domestic objections to the war.” But as Noah Shachtman at Wired reminds us, after 19,751 NATO sorties, this is largely a US-NATO victory:

The operation was massive, at one point involving 13,000 troops from 18 countries. Italian Reaper drones and other intelligence aircraft told the rebels where pro-government forces were, and what the Gadhafi-ites were saying. Plus, the drones did some damage of their own; U.S. Predators struck 92 times since late April. Apache gunships, launched from the carrier HMS Ocean, took out Gadhafi checkpoints, to “encourage rebel fighters in the east to move forward,” according to the Independent. Qatari Mirage jets helped enforce the no-fly zone, while a half-dozen Norwegian F-16s dropped 542 bombs in 2,000 hours of flight time. The frigate HMS Sutherland was one of several ships blocking suspicious vessels from possibly resupplying the regime. B-1 bombers flew all the way from South Dakota to get in on the action, destroying 100 targets in one 24 hour stretch. Then there were the more than 220 Tomahawks.

More than just a military triumph, the US-NATO also lays claims of victory over the intentions of this war. That is, regime change. The US has done it again, managing to hold out long enough for everybody to forget that this war was waged in violation of the law. The US-NATO almost immediately abandoned their stated goals of protecting civilians from Gadhafi’s attacks, switching to ousting him.

Stephen Walt warns against another “Mission Accomplished” gaffe, and as I lay out in my piece today, there is indeed a strong likelihood that (1) the rebel council proves incompetent at laying any foundations for a just and humane government and (2) there will be pressure for costly US support and even ground troops/occupation.

As for the first point, just consider the words of one of the most interventionist (and influential) members of Congress:

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who has been an active supporter of the TNC throughout the Libya war, called on the Obama administration to increase its contacts and support for the TNC, now that they appear to be on the verge of taking power. He laid out a long list of tasks for the TNC if they are able to secure and hold Tripoli.

“In particular, we must support the new Libyan authorities to ensure they are able to prevent acts of retribution, initiate a credible process of national reconciliation, secure weapons depots and critical infrastructure, protect vulnerable populations, establish security and rule of law in Tripoli and throughout Libya, and begin the broadest possible outreach across Libyan society for an inclusive and transparent political transition,” Lieberman said in a statement Sunday evening.

Senators McCain and Graham issued similar statements. Again, especially after the Obama administration and virtually everyone who counts in Washington, formally recognized the TNC as the official and legitimate government of Libya, it is still unclear to what extent the Libyan population supports the rebels. I can think of at least a few obstructions in the way of the rebels gaining legitimacy.

The rebel group is not a cohesive assemblage, but made of disparate factions. The main rebel group, based in Benghazi in the country’s east, consists of former government ministers who have defected, and longstanding opposition figures, representing a range of political views including Arab nationalists, Islamists, secularists, socialists and businessmen. Their military forces are a hodge-podge of armed groups, former soldiers and freelance militias, including amateur neighborhood gangs and former members of an Islamist guerrilla group crushed by Gaddafi in the 1990s.

An example of their divisions made headlines at the end of July, when rebel military commander Abdel Fattah Younis was assassinated by his fellow comrades on suspicion of being disloyal and having perhaps been responsible for an inadequate rebel performance in the east. More than division, the rebels have accumulated a record of extrajudicial executions, suppression of free speech, beatings, and thievery, which have their Western enablers worried about their ability to run a just and humane country.

And such a task will be monumental. The economy is ruined, infrastructure has been bombed and destroyed, communications are disrupted, public services are damaged and heavily armed gangs loyal only to themselves are likely to remain at large. Political tasks, like a significant refugee problem and a looming division of the country between eastern and western tribes, are also complicated undertakings, to say the least.

But also, what legitimacy has the US in Libya? The actions of the Obama administration were not approved by Congress, so that excludes any real legitimacy for it here at home. But the US conduct in the war (which includes war crimes) also leads to questions about what right they have to choose sides in Libya now.