Libya: Can the United States Supply a Remedy?

By Claire Wilson '13Staff Writer

The U.S. government’s attempts at democracy promotion and nation-building in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq have failed. Despite striking out three times, the United States continues to play its ballgame in Libya. Just over a month ago the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, imposing a no-fly zone in Libya with strong support from the United States. With this support, the United States has committed to another ambiguous mission that lacks transparency and an exit strategy.

The United States has a selective response to the intervention and labeling of humanitarian crises. The massacre in Rwanda and Burundi in 1994 prompted the international community to reconsider its policy on humanitarian intervention and establish the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect.” However, there have been other recognizable humanitarian crises in countries that deserve U.S. attention. The United States has failed to acknowledge the violent conflicts in Darfur and Ivory Coast and has not responded to the governments of Yemen, Bahrain or Syria for using force against their protesting citizens in the recent uprisings in the Arab world. Though Qaddafi’s actions against Libyans are alarming, the justification that the United States is intervening in Libya for “humanitarian concern” is false. The severity of circumstances in Libya did not provide the impetus for a decision to intervene. There were political motives.

One of the lessons that the United States has learned from intervening in Afghanistan has been that tribal divisions can lead to a civil war beyond U.S. capacity to solve. Though the United States government may believe it is supporting an organic democratic revolution, many are skeptical of U.S. involvement in what may be a long term civil war.  Anti-Qaddafi forces and their international supporters are united in the negative agenda: to get rid of Qaddafi. However, there is serious division in the positive agenda: to rebuild a post-Qaddafi Libya. The Libyan people, like those in Afghanistan, are not a homogeneous group. The United States may be supporting a democratic movement on the surface, but the current Libyan interim council is not a unified representation of the Libyan people. Before 1951, there was no Libya, but rather three Ottoman provinces: Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezza. These ethnic divisions are still a factor, and Afghanistan should have taught U.S. policymakers that this will be a serious obstacle to a functional democracy.

In Afghanistan, the United States also learned that responding to conflicts with overpowering military force has the backlash of exacerbating Islamic extremism in the Middle East. As was seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. air-strikes intended to attack the enemy more often than not have “friendly fire,” and end up taking out innocent victims of the conflict. Already, there have been multiple claims that NATO air-strikes are killing civilians in Libya, exacerbating anti-American sentiments in the region.

Qaddafi is a dictator who has pocketed billions of dollars at the expense of an entire nation. To punish political opposition, Qaddafi has hanged citizens in public squares and dragged bodies in the streets. Today, Qaddafi’s violent responses to political protesters have escalated full force, as he orders the firing of air strikes and the releasing of tear gas on Libyan civilians. Global response to the daily sufferings of Libyans recognizes that it is a humanitarian crisis. Can military intervention cure the nauseating condition of Libya, though? Given the precedence of previous involvement in the region, the prognosis looks bleak. U.S. efforts to supply a remedy, it seems, can only deepen the infection.