Paul Pillar

The Flash Mob that Decided to Intervene in Libya

 Pundits and political scientists will pick apart for years to come the decision to intervene with force in the Libyan conflict. This will be less the case if somehow this enterprise has a quick and favorable ending. It will be all the more the case if, as seems more likely, there is not such an ending. The decision—as it came together in New York, in Washington, and in foreign capitals—provides rich and in some respects unique material for connoisseurs of collective decision-making. There is no single formula for making bad decisions (or making decisions with bad outcomes, which is not the same thing, although the two are positively correlated), any more than there is such a formula for making good decisions. Nor is there any single form for bad procedures in making decisions (which is something yet again different, although bad procedures are more likely than good procedures to yield bad decisions). Many contrasts are being drawn with the George W. Bush administration's launching of a war in Iraq in 2003, and indeed there is almost no similarity except that both cases involved the use of military force in a Middle Eastern state with an unlikeable dictator. In fact, as far as decision-making is concerned, the Iraq War resembles almost nothing else in that there was no policy process at all within the Bush administration to decide whether to launch the war.

Most of the contrasts view what the Obama administration has done as a “liberal” intervention—humanitarian, genuinely multilateral, and un-cowboylike. It is indeed that, but considering the inputs to the intervention decision not just in the United States but abroad, a different characterization comes to mind. The decision reached last week was the product of many different players who, although sharing some combination of outrage and compassion over what was happening in Libya, had their own old demons to exorcise or new demons to fight. The intervention happened because different parties with widely differing perspectives and motives came together with reasons for taking a fight to Qaddafi that for the moment at least were complementary.

Within the U.S. administration the strongest impetus came from those (identified by Jacob Heilbrunn) who were haunted by the memory of non-interventions of the past and especially by Rwanda in 1994. To sally forth on behalf of Libyans today was for them a way of saying “never again”. Across the Atlantic the biggest push to intervene came from Nicolas Sarkozy. In part this reflected the French president's hyperkinesia and desire to assert French leadership. It also was a reaction to the perception that France had been slow off the mark in reacting to upheaval elsewhere in the Maghreb—especially Tunisia, where the consorting by Sarkozy's foreign minister with the old regime became something of a scandal. In Britain, David Cameron's seizing of the issue, besides being a welcome distraction from the harsh austerity measures his government has been imposing, was a taking up of a role that all British prime ministers, especially Tories, seem to be expected to play at some time in their tenure. That is the role, shaped in the past by Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, of slaying some foreign dragon. Already Cameron is receiving applause from most of the British political spectrum for having a “good war”.

Secretary of State Clinton was correct in emphasizing the importance of an endorsement of the Arab League before starting to shoot up an Arab state. But the League's members were motivated less by any democratic dreams of rebels in Cyrenaica or even compassion for the Libyan people than by the very strong animosity between Muammar Qaddafi and other Arab regimes. The animosity has been longstanding and has featured angry shouting matches at Arab League summits. Qaddafi long ago told the rest of the League to go fly a kite (or the equivalent in colloquial Arabic) and declared himself to be more African than Arab. The fragility and shallowness of the League's endorsement of the use of force was indicated by Secretary General Amr Moussa's comment, less than 24 hours after the shooting started, that no, that's not what the Arabs really had in mind. (Moussa, who has declared his intention to run for president of Egypt, has an additional personal incentive to shape statements in line with what the man on the street in Cairo would like to hear.)