Since the United States performed an abrupt about-face on Libya, backing a U.N. resolution that authorizes “all necessary measures” to counter Qaddafi, military intervention on the rebels' behalf appears likely. Opponents of intervention urge their audiences to recall the Iraq invasion—also launched, in part, on humanitarian grounds—and keenly insist on drawing parallels with that disaster.
But are comparisons with Bush’s attack on Iraq accurate—or superficial?
The argument for invading Iraq was couched in the context of fighting terrorism and made by those keen to capitalize on that context. Neoconservatives, who gleaned an opportunity to advance Israeli interests by subsuming them under the “war on terror”, avidly pressed for war. Republicans, eager to exact revenge for September 11th and aggrandize power, cared little whether the Arabs selected for destruction were perpetrators of the offending crime.
As for Iraqis, while many hoped for Saddam’s demise, few supported American invasion. The most zealous Iraqi advocates of war were opportunists who lived abroad in posh self-imposed exile. Moreover, while hawks sounded noises about “liberation” now and again, that rhetoric saturated the discourse only after—and only because—the earlier pretexts of WMDs and al-Qaeda “links” vanished.
Today, the political mood could scarcely be more different. The revolt that now sweeps the Arab world stands as a devastating rejoinder to neoconservatives, who painted Arabs and Muslims as innately fond of terror and despotism. Authors of yesteryear’s events, neoconservatives are now desperate just to appear in the footnotes. They have vacillated wildly, with some decrying the Egyptian revolution and others urging help for Libya’s rebels.
Regardless of their maneuvering, it is the Libyans and the Arabs themselves who have most loudly demanded intervention. Libya’s rebel commanders and the transitional government in Benghazi have for weeks sought a no-fly zone and air support. The Arab League, an ossified organization nervous over the prospect of further roiling the Arab masses, reflected popular opinion by stamping its seal of approval on the rebels’ pleas.
When the UN finally passed the resolution inviting air strikes, Benghazi erupted in euphoria.
The differences in both the political climate and the balance of forces on the ground clearly differentiate Iraq from Libya. But they do not “disappear” the possibility that Libya may end up like “post-war” Iraq: a nation divided, if not by sect and language, then by geography and tribe.
For Western warplanes may shield rebel enclaves and cities, but what role will the French, British, and Americans play when the rebels try to advance westward and capture or recapture areas run by Qaddafi? Though the choreographed displays of “support” suggests Qaddafi’s base may be broad rather than deep, he still retains the support of his tribe and other allied tribes.
As one civilian in Tripoli opined after learning of the U.N. resolution’s passage, “Civilians holding guns, and you want to protect them? It's a joke. We are the civilians. What about us?”
This complicated reality blunts the persuasive force of the interventionist position, but also dampens the appeal of the non-interventionist one. Action today may pose risks for tomorrow, but inaction today poses risks for today as well as tomorrow: who will tell Libyan rebels, “I don't support intervention because I know better than you, and believe me, it's better if you are crushed by Qaddhaffi than rescued by air strikes that may pose risks down the line"?
That is one of many questions that must be posed, and answered, in the coming days and weeks.
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