The Benghazi Bubble

It's sure to burst

by , March 18, 2011

The latest Western military intervention in the Arab world is occasioned by the supposedly imminent crushing of the Libyan rebels by Muammar Gadhafi’s mercenary army. This new crusade, launched amid an orgy of moralizing, on Thursday received the official imprimatur of the UN Security Council, which voted in favor of a resolution calling for a "no fly zone," and "all necessary measures" to stop the projected slaughter short of sending in an "occupying army." It’s now a race to see whether the British or the French will get in first licks. 

The run-up to all this was instructive. The US, the Brits, the French, and an Arab League miraculously awakened to the concept of morality made a great show of pushing for UN intervention – an action many doubted the Security Council would take, due to the supposedly intransigent opposition of the Russians and the Chinese. The catalytic moment occurred with the call for intervention by the Arab League.  

Leslie Gelb, the grand old man of foreign policy wonkery – and head of the influential Council on Foreign Relations – noted this, and called their bluff

"These strategic moralists fail to note one insidious and self-damning fact: They would have no trouble doing the job all by themselves. They possess hundreds upon hundreds of frontline jet fighters and the necessary air bases—in sum, full air superiority over Libya." 

So, why don’t they do it? Again, Gelb has the answer: 

"For argument’s sake, let’s pretend that Beijing and Moscow suffer a bout of hallucinatory humanitarianism or are mightily impressed by the Arab League’s endorsement of the no-fly zone, and decide not to block it. Guess who draws the short straw and would be expected to perform the no-flying gig? Right again, Dr. Watson: the United States of America. 

"There’s the ultimate punch line: The United States of America will do it. Boy, the world really has our number." 

There are ample reasons for this expectation. Sentiment in favor of US military intervention in Libya may not go very deep, but certainly the movement has ideological breadth.  It extends from the usual suspects on the neoconservative right to Senator John "I was for it before I was against it" Kerry, and even including some on what used to be the "far left." (Although, to be "fair," I’ll note that, among ostensible Marxists, Gadhafi’s alleged virtues are being rediscovered.)  

Each of these pro-intervention political factions has some ideological stake in what they imagine will be the outcome. For the neoconservatives, any and all displays of US military power are to be supported, at least in theory. Kerry supports intervention – air strikes, at the very least – for the same reason he supported Bill Clinton’s war in the Balkans: on "humanitarian" grounds. In carrying the banner of the let’s-liberate-Libya league (LLLL) amongst conventional Democrats, Kerry anticipated the direction the White House was headed, and got ahead of the curve. (Could he be angling to be the replacement if the "Dump Biden" movement gathers more steam?)  

As it turned out, the outcome of the Security Council vote was by no means as certain as Gelb assumed. The resolution, crafted by the Brits, the French, and the Lebanese, authorizes a no-fly "over Libya," but my guess is this means, at first, a no-go zone over Benghazi, and air strikes targeting Gadhafi’s advancing troops. The resolution also rules out an "occupying army" on any part of Libyan soil – but, then again, what’s an "occupying army" as opposed to, say, an "army of liberation"?  

The Guardian, first out with the news the interventionists had the vote, describes the Obama administration as "dithering." The President is depicted as having been dragged into this by the Brits, the French – and, I would imagine, Hillary Clinton, whose role in nagging Bill into bombing Belgrade is well-known. I can’t think of a reason why she’d make an exception for Tripoli.  

Now that the way has been cleared for the attack to begin, we’ll soon have a test of the second — most important — part of Gelb’s thesis, and discover the answer to the vital question of whether the world really does have our number. 

Just what military role the US will play is not yet clear: in any case, the part played by the Pentagon is bound to be downplayed. There is no mention of this question in the Guardian’s reporting, although we are told: 

"Several Arab countries have promised to provide planes, but insisted on their identity being withheld until the resolution was passed. Speculation as to which countries would participate included Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar." 

As Saudi soldiers march in to keep "order" in Bahrain, invading the country and shooting peaceful protesters pointblank, their expensive American-made state-of-the-art air force will stand sentinel over Benghazi, while Saudi petrodollars flow to the rebel camp, per Washington’s request.  

That Egypt was left off the list of probable Arab participants – Egypt with its huge arsenal of American-bought-and-paid for weaponry, and its cadre of US-trained military officers – is telling: it tells us the Americans are going to be asked to do the heavy lifting, albeit behind the scenes, with the Brits and the Frenchies up front, smiling for the cameras.  

The bubble over Benghazi, once established, will push outward, expanding inevitably to include the entire country. The question is: does the United States want to get dragged in by our warlike allies, who are all  too eager to display their militant virtue on the international stage? Or will the President let our vainglorious allies take most of the "credit," with the US role confined to mere rhetorical and back-up support?  

The UN resolution effectively bisects the country formerly known as Libya, for the moment, into its natural and historical constituents: Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (with the southern Fezzan region up for grabs.) In short, what the UN created, in 1951 – the completely made up "country" of Libya – the UN is pulling asunder. Like a mad doctor, crazily trying to undo the results of a botched operation.  

In a recent appearance on Judge Napolitano’s "Freedom Watch," I said President Obama is too smart to go to war with another Arab country, and predicted he wouldn’t do it. I still maintain the US role is going to be minimal, militarily — at least initially. Yet, once the action begins, the pressure to do more, to expand the Benghazi bubble, will increase, and what began as a limited military operation will evolve rather rapidly into a full-scale ground war.  

At that point, the President of the United States will have to decide whether he wants to fight a war in order to hand the Middle East over to the Saudis – even as they shoot down protesters in the streets of Bahrain.  

Which raises the question: What will the UN do about poor forgotten bloodied Bahrain? Will John Kerry, the Arab League, and the Bill Kristols of this world demand Security Council approval for air strikes on King Hamad’s palace? Oh, the suspense is killing me. 

The Financial Times cites French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe as saying "it was an important and historic moment for the UN to stand up against dictators willing to attack their own people to stifle democracy. ‘If we did not do what we are doing now, we would be ashamed.’" As the Arab Awakening challenges the power of the Arab League – a sorry collection of monarchs and assorted despots – the true extent of Messr. Juppe’s shamefulness will stand revealed, in all its shameless glory. 

The Benghazi bubble – the high expectations of the rebels, and the Western public – is bound to burst. It’s only a question of when. Gadhafi has real support in Tripoli and among some of the southern clans. As the West gets drawn into an increasingly complicated civil war, and the omens of disaster fly overhead, there is still time for President Obama – or Congress – to pull us back from the brink.  

I might add, by the way, that by voting for this UN resolution, the administration has implicitly committed us to go to war without a debate in Congress, never mind a vote. But that’s nothing new. George Bush Senior went to the UN to ask permission to go to war for the Emir of Kuwait’s sake before he ever went to Congress. Obama is merely following a by now well-established tradition. The US government is answerable in this matter to all peoples other than its own.

Read more by Justin Raimondo