Some observers continue to doubt the U.S. intervention in Libya

April 13, 2011

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(Getty Images/Chris Hondros)
A rebel soldier celebrates near the charred remains of a Qaddafi loyalist truck bombed by NATO forces on April 10.

It’s been three weeks since President Obama ordered American intervention in Libya, and the early hope that outside involvement would be quick and cheap doesn’t seem to be panning out, according to Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Walt spoke Wednesday with host Jerome McDonnell on WBEZ’s Worldview.

While NATO has taken over the mission, Walt fears a stalemate in Libya is a growing possibility. Most analysts initially believed that a modest degree of Western intervention from United States and European nations would tip the balance to the rebel forces in Libya. But as time has passed, Walt notes, Gaddafi’s departure has looked less likely, and the ability of the Libyan rebels to taken control of the situation themselves seems to have dwindled. “[Gaddafi] appears to have a sizable number of loyalists” said Walt. “They seem to be more effective militarily than we might have thought.”

One of Walt’s greatest concerns is the possibility that intervention could enflame a civil war, instead of abating one. If forces do not dissolve quickly, Walt notes that interference can unwittingly exaggerate issues by providing literal “fuel to the flame”. As a result, he fears the potential cost and damage to the United States’ image has increased. 

That’s, in part, because the United States does not have a consistent history with Middle Eastern nations. For every Afghanistan, there is a Bahrain, which has largely been ignored during its own times of crisis. Walt called Libya the “perfect case”, given Gaddaffi’s own unsavory reign and lack of allies in the Arab world, and said that this was the biggest impetus for U.S. involvement. He also cited few other American interests in the region as the cause for Obama’s pressure on other European nations to take the brunt of the work.

One surprising thing about involvement in Libya has been the bipartisan support, though Walt argued that this is more typical than it appears. Both neoconservatives and liberals have supported intervention, disagreeing only in regards to how much multilateral support is required to go into another country; neoconservatives are often wary of the United Nations as a constraint on American power, while liberals prefer the legal support of the UN.

But Walt also spoke of the dangerous precedent intervention in Libya might create, citing Gaddafi’s choice to give up his weapons of mass destruction in 2003, only to find out now that this is “what happens to a leader who agrees to go along with the United States and the West,” he noted. “If I were an Iranian, I’d be thinking long and hard about what message to draw from this,”said Walt. He believes it is in the best interest of the U.S. to show more restraint in the future, as it is “usually easier to begin military operations than it is to stop them.”