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Euchring out a geopolitical quagmire

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted Marchy 21, 2011

Cruise missile launch
The USS Barry fires a Tomahawk missile

It was supposed to go smoothly. The United States government has thrown its weight behind an idea that the U.K. and France were pushing for some time: a no-fly zone over Libya, with air and cruise missile strikes to enforce it. The U.S. got on board to wide international acclaim; the U.N. quickly signed off on the air strikes last Thursday night. The next morning, in a surprise development, Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa agreed to the unilateral ceasefire that U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon had demanded. That agreement proved to be transitory. President Obama's first ultimatum speech last Friday afternoon included the demand that Gadaffi's forces cede the towns they recently won. Instead of conciliatory, the Libyan dictator is now dug in. There's a question of whether Obama's ultimatum pushed Gadaffi over the edge to renewed defiance. It had certainly pushed him to something else: a Hail Mary pass that worked for North Vietnam in the 1960s. Gadaffi is edging towards playing the victim card.

The resolution itself focuses upon protection of civilians and refugees. The no-fly zone is contained therein; so is an asset freeze. There's also an arms embargo. One of the authorizations is almost a blank cheque on the use of force against the Libyan government:

Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council;

The blank cheque part is in the clause "take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya." That's what we're seeing in Libya now. The part about excluding foreign land occupation was likely put there to prevent another multi-year occupation; troop commitments are already stretched.

For a time, it looked like Gadaffi had folded. Now, he's pulling out all of the Arab demagogue's stops. He's calling the Coalition government both colonialists and crusaders. He's crowing about civilian casualties purportedly caused by Coalition forces. For all his defiance, he may be on weak footing. The latest report shows the Libyan military is calling for a ceasefire, after successful Coalition strikes wrecked most of the Gadaffi regime's air force. Unsurprisingly, given the false ceasefire from last Friday, the Coalition forces treated it as a ruse.

Back To The Wail

The dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa are fairly clear; they're an aftereffect of the United States trying to nation-build in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rebels in the entire region have been encouraged to rise up in the hopes that the United States and/or the rest of the Coalition will step in to the rebels' benefit. In British parlance, this is known as "whistling for the dog."

Any dictator with common sense knows now that an uprising will bring unwanted scrutiny from the United States government and United States citizens cheering the uprisers on. Rebels know it too. They're counting on public pressure to encourage the U.S. to step in, or at least to create enough of a threat to make the leader they're rebelling against to step down. Right now, that pressure tactic is being used sincerely – but it makes one wonder how long before the United States becomes played. Marshalling public pressure also worked for the Vietnamese Communists.

Smart dictators will learn the following lesson: it's best to nip any mass protests in the bud. How they would go about doing so, I'll leave you to guess.

What of Gadaffi, though? It's too late for him to put the genie back in the bottle. Needless to say, the mainstreams in Coalition nations want him gone. His latest maneuvering, plus the Friday ceasefire that wasn't, suggest that he's already playing the victim. If so, then he's partially succeeded. As of last Sunday, the Arab League and the governments of the People's Republic of China and Russia are expressing regret over having supported the airstrikes. The troops have indeed performed magnificently. But, the North Vietnam precedent does indicate that definite victories on the field can be turned into Pyrrhic victories through the enemy playing the victim. It's only a matter of time before the U.S. antiwar circuit gears up.

A Gentle Victory

If Gadaffi succeeds in portraying himself as the victim, there's a gentler option that could be resorted to. It would be hard to take at first, especially for Americans, but it would aid liberalization in dictatorships where unshackling seems a fantasy.

Equating victory with removal of Gadaffi is certainly stout-hearted, but it does limit the Coalition's flexibility. Playing the victim is an insidious strategy because it turns military strength into wavering of political resolve due to guilt complexes. The more total victory is pursued, the more insidious the victim card can be.

I know the following won't sound stirring, but it might be better to have Gadaffi stay on his perch provided his wings and beak are clipped. The way to clip him is for the National General People's Congress to get real power.  It doesn't matter that the Congress is only elected indirectly; it's still elected. Getting real power in its hands – provided that the one-party monopoly is ended – would provide a buffer against Gadaffi's depredations. It would stand on guard when the coalition's attention inevitably turns elsewhere. Given the tumult in Bahrain and Yemen, attention will shift.

I know my own modest suggestion for a "limited dictatorship" doesn't speak to the need to see the tyrant fall, but it does provide an evolutionary path that might soften anti-democratic impulses in other countries. Unconditional surrender won't. If Gadaffi is deposed, why would any other dictator even consider liberalizing? The precedent set equates liberalizing with revolt, with the Coalition mobilized, with being deposed. Any sensible dictator will instead pinch rebellions dead before they get out of hand.

Gadaffi's buffoonish nature doesn't exactly smack of King John, but both share a vanity that can be used. If the dice fall right, Libya will have its own answer to the Magna Carta. Unprecedentedly, one that would clip the beak of a socialist dictator.

If he crows about winning afterwards, and a less unfree Libya becomes truly better off, his dictator peers may be less adamant against other Magna Cartas. At the very least, they would be less inclined to see a public demonstration for one as a mortal threat to their rule. Is it not better for the world to see new Magna Cartas spread?  In an unideal world, why would we not prefer less malign dictatorships? ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching the gold market. He can be reached at danielmryan@primus.ca. (C) 2011 Daniel M. Ryan

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