I have a confession to make. It is very difficult for me to remain a principled non-interventionist with the events in Libya.
I’m trying, but really, I’m not trying all that hard. I’m not going to cheer the Pentagon, or it’s moral (or -giggle- immoral) equivalent in Paris, as policy makers and planners and generals and staffers struggle with what to do and how to handle the rebellion in Libya. But all the same, it would be nice to see the militaries of the West do something, well, useful for somebody, and bombing Qaddafiy’s army, air force, command and control centers and logistics would be useful. It would be nice if that somebody were not Lockheed Martin, Boeing or SAIS. I do not know if that is possible or not.
My ambivalence here is based largely on my experience in the U.S. Army in Panama in the 1980s. I did not sign up to be a soldier in 1980s Central America, but there I was. I was a clerk in an MP unit on the Pacific side, at Ft. Clayton. To say that I hated every minute of it would be a significant understatement.
On one hand, I saw what the huge American military presence meant for many Panamanians. It became clear we were an occupying army, and most of the Panamanians I met were sullen and angry about it. Even with the unrest of the 1970s and Omar Torrijos’ wresting of the Panama Canal from American sovereignty. I watched the ships pass through the Panama Canal out my barracks window: Japanese freighters, mostly, with the occasional cruise ship and even Soviet transport. I loathed riot control training, our morning exercises learning to beat Panamanians. We had no business being in Panama. The canal wasn’t worth a single life. Not one.
And yet this was also the time of Manuel Noriega. And I remember how fraught our relations with the Panamanian Defense Forces were. Long before the general became a big deal in the United States, there were regular incidents between his forces and ours. The military police were on the forefront of this because as part of the canal treaties, a number of U.S. military facilities were jointly patrolled with the PDF. Panamanian soldiers regularly drew weapons on Americans, ran smuggling operations to steal from the military stores, and generally worked to make our lives fairly difficult. One afternoon, a friend and I wandering around Panama City had to run from four machine-gun toting PDF soldiers who wanted to ask us questions. “Never let them detain you,” was one of the first things we were told when we arrived, because our safety under the status of forces agreement could never be guaranteed.
There was a PDF unit whose symbol, painted on the side of the trucks they drove around Panama City and Balboa, was a crude drawing of a dog holding a severed human arm — dripping blood — in its mouth.
One afternoon, an elderly Afro-Panamanian who worked at one of the army barracks shining shoes (and in the evening playing steel drums in a calypso band) asked me: “We see what his soldiers do to you. You see what his soldiers do to us. You Americans have the power. You can do something. You should.” I didn’t disagree with him. As one soldier in the middle of the mess, I was powerless to help or save anyone but myself. And the people who commanded us had other ideas — supporting the Contras in Nicaragua, for example.
And so when George H. W. Bush finally invaded Panama in December 1989, destroying the not-so-vaunted PDF and eventually capturing Noriega and spiriting him away, I had mixed feelings. (I was not there for the invasion.) On the one hand, it was another example of American brutality at work. On the other, it was actually reasonably well fought, and a truly odious regime — and its military — were eradicated. I do not know how Panama is run today, but I’m guessing it is a better place to live an ordinary life than it was in 1987.
The most serious disagreement I have with the invasion is that Noriega didn’t owe Americans justice. He owed Panamanians. He never should have seen the inside of an American courtroom or prison. He needed to be handed over to a mob of his countrymen and then strung up from the tallest tree in Panama City. And left to swing long enough for the tree sloths to climb down and cling to his body.
I have no such experience of Libya. I have known some Libyans, exiles, who I have come to like and respect. Some years ago, I watched Libya’s UN ambassador threaten a Libyan exile I had attended grad school with. I won’t shed many tears should the West go to war to help the Libyan rebels. I won’t demand my government do that, and I’ll caution about consequences. But I’m not going to be all that opposed.
I do not know how the fighting in Libya will end. Qaddafiy right now appears to have the edge in terms of sheer firepower, but the rebels are highly motivated to fight in ways Qaddafiy’s forces are not. It took a lot of pounding for Qaddafiy’s troops to take Zawiya. It looks bleak, but two weeks ago, it looked like Qaddafiy was doomed. So, anything could happen. And I can do nothing about it regardless.
But something to consider: what if Qaddafiy wins? Because that’s a possibility. What will remain is a Libya that is internationally isolated — recognized by many governments in the Third World but not in the First — and I suspect sanctions will be tightened as Western regimes, embarrassed, harden their stance. It will become difficult if not impossible to legally trade of do business with Qaddafiy’s Libya. The West may even put in place a military operation to impose a blockage on Qaddafiy’s Libya, to ensure that sanctions are adhered to. It is the natural extension of a no-fly zone, and if that is imposed, it will likely stay in place.
And what will remain is a broken Libya, one in desperate need of reconstruction and unable to secure much legally. Rebuilding will take place, to the extent it will take place, in an environment of serious material scarcity. The people, and not Qaddafiy, will pay the price of sanctions, the same way Iraqis did following the end of the Kuwait War in 1991. Qaddafiy’s government will, of course, use access to food and medicine and rebuilding material as a tool to reward and punish. And that doesn’t even begin to touch how his regime will brutalize people — especially in the east — who rose up or fought for the rebels.
Libyans will flee this broken, brutalized, impoverished country in Mariel style, taking to boats to flee to Italy, Malta and even Greece, filling refugee camps in Egypt and Tunisia. If European governments are afraid of a refugee crisis now, they will have a significant one on their hands should Qaddafiy win the war.
Finally, Qaddafiy will have absolutely no incentive to behave himself internationally. He may never bomb another disco again, but he will have all the incentive in the world to make life difficult for Western nations by supporting dictators and warlords in Africa. (This also, it should be noted, makes life really miserable for Africans.) And because all, or even most, trade with Libya will likely be illegal, Qaddafiy will create (or further develop) networks with dictators and other shady characters who will be happy to sell him whatever he needs. And as sanctions drag on, European oil firms will find access to Libya’s crude far too tempting, and something akin to the corruption of the UN’s Iraq oil-for-food program will quickly arise.
So, it is better, at this point, to simply screw up the courage and commit to aiding the rebels. Not just with a Libya-wide no-fly zone, but also with ground strikes to destroy Qaddafiy’s armor, artillery and supply sources. To destroy his communications. Because the rebels deserve better than valiant deaths. And because Qaddafiy really deserves to swing from the tallest lamp-post in Tripoli.