Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Libya: Place Your Bets

Our story so far:

The Libya Chapter
The Libya Ambivalence
Toward a Shallower Ambivalence
Libya: He's a Rebel
Libya: Qadaffy's Defenders

When President Obama spoke the words "we have stopped Gadhafi's deadly advance," on Monday night, it had the ring of truth. By Tuesday morning it was a cruel joke. By Tuesday evening headlines told of "unimaginable carnage," of the sort our intervention was supposed to prevent.

Whether you support or oppose this "kinetic activity," or your views swing back and forth like the battlefield advantage, it's impossible to predict how long it will last. Unpredictability is built right into the nature of warfare – which is one reason any nation should be exceedingly cautious before embarking down that path.

In journalism, you can generally find an expert to argue any point you want to make. Here's what the experts say about Libya:

• On February 21, Prof. George Joffe, on the BBC, wondered if Qadaffy might collapse within days.

• On March 1, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton warned the conflict could turn into a "protracted civil war."

• On March 15, Canadian reporter Mitch Potter reported the rebels were "on the verge of collapse."

• On March 17, Patrick Bury, writing in the Irish Times, said that if this turned into a civil war, they tend to last, on average, seven years.

• On March 18, Obama told congressional leaders that our "lead role" would last days, not weeks.

• On March 20, JCS Chair Mike Mullen warned of the possibility of a "stalemate," presumably leading to a de facto partition.

• On March 20, Heather Hurlburt, who heads "a group allied with the White House," predicted "this is going to be more like Kosovo than like Baghdad in 2003.” That means around 78 days - whcih was also a lot longer than anyone in the White House expected.

• On March 24, the French foreign minister predicted a quick end to the intervention, in terms of "weeks, not months."

• On March 25, a French NATO spokesman predicted a 90-day timeframe, which is technically months, not years.

• On March 29, a London Telegraph editorial considered the possibility that this could last for years, just like Iraq and Afgahnistan: "Merely to state that Libya is unlike either of those two countries is to ignore the fact that we thought those conflicts would be short-lived, too."

• On March 29, Patrick Cockburn opines that Qadaffy will fall in a matter of weeks - the forces against him are too strong and his support is too weak. But, he adds, "It is the next stage in Libya - after the fall of Gadaffi - which has the potential to produce a disaster similar to Afghanistan and Iraq."

• On March 30, as I write, we have a prediction from Johann Galtung, the "father of peace studies," that this war could last for 20 years – or longer, if Qadaffy is made into a martyr. If that one doesn't sound near-fetched to you, Galtung has gotten a few improbable predictions right in the past.

So if you toss all those and more into a big jar, and pull out a prediction, I'd bet on "civil war." That is, you have an ethnic dimension, with Bedouins in the east and Berbers in the west. You have an economic dimension, with more oil wealth in the eastern portion – a possible funding source for the rebellion. You have a religious dimension, with a more Islamic orientation in the east. You have a military dimension, with major firepower concentrated in the hands of the regime. And you have a political dimension, with the prestige of the NATO alliance hanging on the proposition that Qadaffy's got to go, and his apparent determination not to do so anytime soon.

Under the circumstances, anyone who predicted that this would last a long time may be entitled to a round of drinks – as soon as we can agree on what "a long time" is.

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