US must look before jumping into Libya

 Doctors joining protesters in calling for a no-fly zone over Libya during a rally in  Benghazi on Sunday. — AFP picture
As the United States ponders a military intervention in Libya, it would do well to consider its past successes and failures in the Middle East, writes MICHAEL C. HUDSONALTHOUGH the United States has come to exercise pervasive influence across the greater Middle East and maintains a ubiquitous global military presence, it has rarely intervened with boots on the ground. But there are, perhaps, lessons to be learned from those occasions when it has done so, in Lebanon, Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The overall record of accomplishment is mixed. Two cases -- Lebanon in 1958 and Kuwait in 1991 -- might be considered clear success stories. Lebanon in 1958 was quick and cost-free: only one fatality (non-combat) among the some 20,000 Marines and army units that waded ashore on the pristine beaches south of Beirut that summer.

Even so, the operation in retrospect has a comic-opera quality. Having been invited in by a pro-Western president desperately clinging to power in the face of popular protests, the US ended up actually arranging his departure and helping install the "neutral" Lebanese army commander who was acceptable to the rebels.
And the larger strategic goal -- to stem the tide of radical Arab nationalism that had just toppled the pro-Western monarchy in Iraq and threatened Jordan -- was at best only partially achieved. Iraq went on to fall under Baathist rule, eventually in the grip of Saddam Hussein, whose misdeeds would trigger two subsequent US interventions.

The other success story is the US-led invasion of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1991. The decision to intervene was not an easy one: not only was Saddam's army thought to be a capable, battle-tested force, there was strong opposition from the Arab world.

But the American calculation was that the liquidation of a friendly oil-exporting state would undermine vital American interests in the region and threaten the other weak oil states.

Ultimately, president George H.W. Bush, through able diplomacy, enlisted key Arab support not just from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council governments, but also, crucially, from Egypt and Syria. Kuwait was well and truly liberated, but Saddam remained unrepentant and firmly in power.

If these two success stories are marked by a clear mission, coherent execution, a prompt and smooth exit strategy, and a minimally supportive domestic and regional context, the "failures offer other lessons.

America's second intervention in Lebanon in 1982, as part of a multinational force monitoring the withdrawal of Palestinian forces after Israel's invasion, was a fiasco.

The US Marines failed to prevent the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Phalangists with the acquiescence of Israel. The American embassy was blown up. Then, 241 Marines were killed in a suicide truck bomb attack. The US ended up sucked into Leba-non's ongoing civil war, engaged in fruitless shelling of the Lebanese mountains, skirmished with Syria and finally made a hasty and embarrassing withdrawal.

The fact that American and allied forces are still in Afghanistan in large numbers 10 years later, with a long and uncertain struggle still ahead, is testament to the limits of even vast military power.

The Arab popular awakening against authoritarian regimes has forced Washington to confront these historical legacies and look anew at the contradictions of its Middle East policies.

Tunisia and Egypt were comparatively simple cases. But Libya is turning out to be something else entirely: a de facto civil war.

And if protests again grow ugly in Bahrain and other Gulf states, Washington will find itself firmly skewered on the horns of its dilemma: support autocratic regimes in the name of purported stability or back reformists whose values are shared but whose ultimate nature is hard to ascertain.

A truly rogue regime until it discovered the virtues of making up with the West, Muammar Gaddafi's bizarre family-tribal military autocracy is counter-attacking against the determined, enthusiastic but poorly organised and ill-equipped protest movement.

The convergence of morality and interests is understandably generating pressure for the US to come to the rescue militarily.

But before using force in the present case, the US needs to look back at its own decidedly mixed record in the region and consider the following five simple rules for intervention:

1) Don't come in unless invited. As the well-armed British SAS agents discovered, Libyan rebels don't welcome foreign soldiers. Still less will they welcome American boots on the ground, considering the interventionist baggage the US carries.

Gaddafi, on the other hand, could make political hay out of overt US involvement.

2) If you feel you must go in, don't go in alone. Join with the neighbours who are closest to the conflict. In the Libya case, this means Arab neighbours first of all: Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Secondarily, Western allies might help, but remember the bad memories Libyans have of Italian and British colonialism.

3) Be prepared for things that will go wrong. As previous interventions have shown, Murphy's Law invariably applies.

Sometimes there is a happy ending, as in Lebanon in 1958. But most of the time the intervener gets stuck in the swamp of local conditions that are only superficially understood, which is why Rule 4 is important.

4) Don't overstay your welcome. One of the rallying cries of the nationalists (led by Gaddafi) in 1969 was the closure of Wheelus Air Force base, then the largest base outside the US.

Even if desperate rebels might initially accept an ongoing US presence, the Libyan public will resist anything that looks like the re-establishment of a Western military presence.

A post-Gaddafi regime foolish enough to encourage such a permanent engagement would soon be confronting its own rebels, including radical Islamists.

5) Consider the alternatives. Look before you leap. Troops on the ground, even if invited by the rebels, will create more problems than they solve. A no-fly zone, said Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, cannot be established without destroying Gaddafi's air defences first.

Libyan protesters need weaponry to confront Gad-dafi's tanks and armour. It is politically acceptable for the rebels discreetly to receive Western arms and intelligence support, but Americans should never be firing the guns.

Michael C. Hudson is director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. He is also professor of international relations at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington DC

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