Web Chat: Libya and the U.S. Role in the Middle East/North Africa Unrest

Expert Ken Pollack took your questions in a live web chat on U.S. options as the turmoil and bloodshed continue in Libya and throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:30 David Mark: Welcome to the chat. We welcome your thoughts and questions.

12:30 [Comment From Sean Bennett: ] Advocates of intervention in Libya have been increasingly vocal in the past weeks. But statements from the Department of Defense about the dangers of such action have given pause to a number of supporters–analysts like Marc Lynch rather than pundits like Newt Gingrich. In your opinion, does the situation warrant U.S. intervention? What form would/should such an intervention take (only U.S. forces, cooperation with NATO allies, something with ties to the UN)? While Arab opinion of Qaddafi is low, could intervention sour perceptions of the United States yet further? Lastly, have any anti-Qaddafi forces officially requested foreign intervention?

12:31 Ken Pollack: I figured we would get a question on this. It is definitely the issue of the hour. So here goes.

We HAVE had formal requests from spokesmen for the Libyan opposition groups for aid, including a No-Fly Zone (NFZ).

Whether the US will actually do a NFZ or another military option, I think, is a big open question.

First off, this is a President who came to office determined to get America OUT of its wars in the Middle East and it is not yet clear to me whether the American people are ready to support another military intervention (which could last a very long time, as I will explain) in the Middle East—let alone whether this White House believes they are. At the very least, the President is going to have to convince people that this is a vital national interest and I don’t think the American people buy that yet.

With the military options, the big question is what is it that we are trying to do?

Are we trying to push Qadhafi out of power? Are we just trying to demonstrate some commitment to the opposition? Or are we just trying to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe?

These are very different goals and they push you in very different directions regarding the actual options available to you. For instance, everyone’s current favorite military option, the No-Fly Zones, is quite likely the wrong option if your goal is to overthrow Qadhafi because it is not very likely that they will have that effect. In truth, if that is your goal, then the current balance of forces strongly suggests that the U.S. would have to adopt a much more active intervention in Libya to achieve that goal.

So let me quickly sketch out the options and what they entail.

Safe Haven: If Qadhafi’s counteroffensive makes headway, you could see huge numbers of Libyans running for Egypt and Tunisia. If our goal is to prevent a humanitarian nightmare, then we would want to do something about this. Moreover, given what they have just gone through and are still going through, it would be disastrous to burden Egypt and Tunisia with hundreds of thousands of refugees as well. We could carve out safe havens along both borders, defend them with ground and air forces (and ground forces would be necessary) and then bring in the UN and NGOs to provide aid and assistance. Easy to start, but very hard to end because it requires a political settlement in Libya and one you can trust.

No-Fly Zones: I am not a big fan of this option, and it’s not because I am a pacifist or oppose aiding the cause of democracy in the Middle East.

The NFZs are a problematic option. We have never tried to use it in the past to bring down a regime—only to prevent a humanitarian crisis—and it is unlikely that a No-Fly Zone could bring down the regime.

Airstrikes are psychologically terrifying even when they inflict absolutely no damage, and that trauma has a real impact on military operations, so I don’t want to suggest that the sorties being flown by the Libyan Air Force (LAF) are irrelevant to the fight. But the LAF is a miserable organization of very limited utility even at their height in the 1980s, and they have gotten worse since. It is highly unlikely that they will prove decisive under any set of circumstances, and therefore it is equally unlikely that removing the LAF from the military equation by means of a NFZ would be the key to enabling the opposition to prevail.

This is also why there is a very considerable danger of escalation or mission creep from a NFZ. The imposition of a NFZ is not going to prevent Qadhafi’s ground forces from continuing to kill people and, especially if the opposition is unable to hold off his counteroffensives, there will be tremendous pressure to turn the No-FLY Zone into a No-DRIVE Zone—to go after his tanks and other armored vehicles. That is a much, much more demanding mission for U.S. and NATO air forces. Moreover, we should remember that most of the killing is likely to be done by infantry—guys on foot with rifles. They are always the ones who inflict the most casualties in civil wars, and it is effectively impossible to prevent them from doing so with only air power. If you are serious about that, you need boots on the ground.

Finally, if Qadhafi does not prevail quickly in a counteroffensive over the next few weeks, then I think the most likely scenario is a long, protracted civil war—a stalemate in which both sides will have difficulty winning a decisive victory. That means that a No-Fly Zone would have to be sustained for months if not years. During my time at CIA and the NSC I was deeply involved in the NFZs over Iraq, and they are extremely taxing to sustain from both a military and diplomatic point of view. It is not clear to me that prolonging the stalemate in Libya under such circumstances is enough of a national interest to justify that kind of a military and diplomatic commitment. Just within the Middle East, there are countries of far greater importance to the United States that may well need us to invest those resources there to make sure they turn out right, starting with Egypt and Iraq.

Airstrikes: If the U.S. really wants to do something about the Libyan Air Force (LAF), I much prefer this option to the NFZs. It means a bigger commitment of force up front, but we are basically done in a week or so—and because it is far more aggressive, it might help topple Qadhafi in a way that NFZs probably would not. It would mean bringing one or more carriers in, plus basing Air Force assets in Malta and/or Italy, and going after the LAF at their airfields. It would mean suppressing (not destroying) Libya’s second-rate air defense network, and destroying as many LAF planes on the ground—or in the air, if they come up while we are attacking—as we can. In 2-6 days of strikes, we could destroy much of the LAF and make it extremely difficult for the rest to operate (by smashing command and control and logistical facilities). It should have most of the impact of a NFZ, but in a much more compressed period of time.

The Afghan Option: If our goal is really to topple Qadhafi, this is one way we could try to do it on the cheap. It would be following the playbook we used to topple the Taliban in 2001. We would send large numbers of Special Forces (SF) and CIA paramilitary operatives into Libya to organize, train and equip the opposition forces and mold them into a cohesive, moderately capable force. Then, we would provide lots of air power to enable the opposition to drive on Tripoli and crush Qadhafi’s loyal military forces. This represents a much more active American role than anyone seems to want to contemplate right now. It is also going to be a big undertaking—bigger than Afghanistan in some ways—if only because in Afghanistan we already had a cohesive, capable opposition in the Northern Alliance, and in Libya we would have to create one.

Covert Support Alone: On the other hand, if we don’t want to get directly involved, we could handle Libya the way we have handled lots of other similar situations. We send in the CIA and have them arm, train, organize and otherwise equip the opposition to give them a better shot against Qadhafi. This is what we have done in countless places around the world—Afghanistan in the 80s, Angola, Nicaragua, etc. We have had very mixed results, but it allows us to do something without committing our own forces. Will it be enough in Libya? Hard to say. A big question will be how much help Qadhafi gets. If we can combine this with a very effective sanctions/blockade option, then over a period of a few years, his strength might erode enough and the opposition strength might improve enough to tip the balance in their favor. But it will take years, not weeks or months. (If I had to bet, I would bet that this is what we end up doing.)

Invasion: Finally, if we really wanted to get rid of Qadhafi, we could invade. I can’t imagine any American being ready to do this, and certainly no one is calling for it, so I am going to move on to the next question instead.

12:31 [Comment From Haley Cook: ] Given the past tumultuous history of the U.S.-Libya relationship, and the wide variety of opinions from National Transitional Council members on the desirability of outside intervention in Libya, how would U.S. participation in military intervention in Libya be perceived by the Libyan people, the intended beneficiaries of such intervention?

12:34 Ken Pollack: I think this needs to be a very important consideration for he White House and our allies.

It is very hard to know how the public in an Arab country–especially one like Libya that has been largely cut-off from the rest of the world by a repressive regime–will react to outside intervention. IN Iraq, which is somewhat similar, you had a very wide range of emotions–some people did welcome us, others hated us, many resented us, still others saw us as a necessary evil. But of course, when we invaded it suddenly became all about us, and much less about getting rid of Saddam.

We could face a similar situation in Libya. I have my concerns about US intervention, expressed at some length above, so I would not say that this should be the dispositive issue, but I think we need to think hard about that. So far, Libyans have asked for a No-Fly Zone, not an American invasion or anything like it.

12:35 [Comment From matisak: ] What do you think about the scenario in which Qadhafi will stay as a leader of Libya? I know it is hypothetical but what if rebels will strike some deal with him? Will the world accept it?

12:39 Ken Pollack: Another great question. Unfortunately, one we may actually have to deal with in the real world since you have to give pretty good odds on Qadhafi surviving for some period of time absent very major Western intervention which, as I have said above, I am skeptical is likely.

What we find in most civil wars is that regardless of how they started, over time, the dynamics of the war itself take over. The Lebanese civil war morphed numerous times from 1975 to 1989, and different countries backed different sides at different times. Remember, the Syrians intervened on the side of the Christians in the beginning, then shifted to the Muslims, and then eventually just wanted everyone to stop fighting by the end.

In Libya, if he is not toppled in the next few weeks or does not reassert control in that same period, the situation will likely settle into a stalemate and then it will be all about which side can get more external support and which side can peel off key tribes from the other. Both of these things could swing the military balance significantly. That means that different tribes currently with the opposition might reconcile to him over time. Heck, he might eventually be able to reassert control over the whole country by bringing tribes over one at a time.

12:39 David Mark: What is known about Qadhafi’s chemical weapons program? Does that fact that such weapons have not been used upon the rebels to this point suggest they may not exist?

12:41 Ken Pollack: Qadhafi actually gave up his WMD programs about 5-6 years ago. The IAEA came in and certified that he had shut down his nuclear program. I cannot remember if other international organizations came in to check on his CW program, but my memory is–and I am relying on my memory–that the US intelligence community felt comfortable that he had given that up too. The basic feeling was that Qadhafi has “surrendered” and was looking to make sure that the sanctions were lifted and there was no threat he would suffer the same consequences as Saddam.

12:41 [Comment From Tom: ] Can you explain a bit about how the military in Libya is so different than the Egyptian military? They are behaving quite differently in the face of similar protests.

12:46 Ken Pollack: I love this question, but wish I had more time to answer it properly! If you are interested, I have about 200 pages on the subject in my book Arabs at War (UNebraska, 2002).

So let me just make two quick points here.

1. The Libyan military stinks. The Egyptian military was not exactly the Wehrmacht or the IDF event at its height, but they were still far more capable than the Libyans. That is part of why Qadhafi’s military is having so much trouble with a disorganized and rag-tag opposition. Basically, the Libyan military suffers from all the same problems as all of the other Arab militaries, but much worse.

2. The Libyan military also was not nearly as institutionally as strong as the Egyptian military. Qadhafi deeply distrusted his military, even more so than Mubarak did (and far more than Sadat, who actually depoliticized the Egyptian military). Libyan forces are often tribally based, they have lousy training and miserable maintenance practices–although they have been surprisingly good at logistical operations over the years. This is why the military kind of fell apart when the revolt started. Some whole tribes defected to the opposition, taking their soldiers with them. In some cases, that meant whole units, in others, key parts of units. But Q held on to other tribes and thus their military personnel. He has been trying to consolidate and regroup them into a cohesive fighting force to overcome problem number 2, but that still will leave them dealing with problem number 2.

12:47 [Comment From Rachel W.: ] How does the revolutionary movement sweeping the Middle East and North Africa affect Israel politically, economically, and in terms of national security? Will the U.S. react in Israel’s favor should the country’s well-being be jeopardized?

12:50 Ken Pollack: So far, one of the most interesting and positive things about the wave of revolts sweeping the region is that they have not been about Israel. As Israel’s most important ally, we need to convince the Israelis not to make it about them. I think their government gets that, which is why they have been so obligingly quiet these past few months. Inserting themselves into this situation could only make it worse.

Now, that said, the Israelis are terrified of what is going on. They see the Egyptian government, the pillar of the piece process, collapsing and JOrdan shaky. That makes a very nervous country positively neurotic. But we need to convince them that what is going on is ultimately positive (assuming we can help it turn out well) and undoubtedly inevitable. So we need to be there to reassure them, but also urge them to restrain themselves.

12:50 [Comment From Shawn: ] How can the United States fundamentally reconstruct its policies to reflect the realities of the new Middle East?

12:57 Ken Pollack: This is an issue that has driven me to distraction for a decade or more. Right after 9/11 I started writing that we needed to understand that terrorism was not the problem in the Middle East, it was a symptom of the problem. The real problem was the economic, political and social stagnation of the states of the Muslim Middle East–which had pushed all of those countries into a pre-revolutionary state.

Well, the revolutions have started, and my hope is that this will be the final wake-up call (and we have had several including the Iranian revolution and 9/11) that gets us out of bed and out of our tired, old totally mistaken Middle East policy that saw the status quo as a good thing. What that failed to understand is that the people of the Muslim Middle East hated the status quo because it kept them in misery, and that anger and frustration were inevitably going to result in terrorism, insurgencies, civil wars, failed states and revolutions.

The trick for the US and for the Obama Admin going forward is that we have to reverse that approach. We have to embrace the need for change/transformation. We need to recognize that the old status quo was our enemy and the issue moving forward is how we help the Arabs (and someday, perhaps, the Iranians) to transform their societies. But preferably, peacefully through a process of negotiated change. As part of that, we need to convince the remaining autocracies that change is coming and resisting it is not an opposition: it can either come gradually and peacefully with them moving it forward, or it will come suddenly and unpredictably and will sweep them from power.

One last point on that. We as Americans romanticize revolutions because of our own history. But it would be much better to have change without the unpredictability of revolutions. So far Egypt has gone as well as possible, but it is far from out of the woods. Revolutions get hijacked, they fall apart, they lead to civil war. Now that Egypt has gone through it, we have to help them avoid those problems, but we should be trying to avoid running the same great social science experiments in other Arab states–especially Saudi.

12:57 [Comment From TY: ] What is the difference between the revolution happening in Libya and those in Middle East countries recently

12:59 Ken Pollack: What you are seeing across the region is that there is a common frustration with the common stagnation of the economic, social and political systems in every one of the Arab states and Iran. But each country also has its own unique frictions and problems, and so the revolts are starting the same, and have some of the same features, but then as they get going, each one looks more unique as its own specific problems enter into the mix.

So in Libya, you have tribal divisions, geographic divisions, even sectoral divisions that are now intermingling with (and even threatening to overpower) the wider unhappiness with Qadhafi’s misrule and the problems he created for Libya, which were similar to the problems Mubarak created in Egypt.

12:59 David Mark: Thanks for the chat, folks.