"I came here to drink milk and kick ass. And I've just finished my milk." - Moss, The IT Crowd

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When is regime change not regime change?

In his speech last night, President Obama stated that the U.S. had "a responsibility to act" as "an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom." Leaving aside the self-congratulatory nonsense about the U.S. behaving as an advocate for human freedom around the world, let's accept this premise.

Obama goes on to say that, "I made it clear that Gaddafi had lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead, and I said that he needed to step down from power." We worked with the U.N. to get a no-fly zone authorized, we have not acted alone, etc. We will "support the aspirations of the Libyan people." Apparently, we are going to provide logistical support to the rebels, help with jamming Qaddafi's communications, and "pursue the broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to its people."

Yet in the same speech, Obama states that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake." Don't get me wrong, I have no desire to see the U.S. mired in another Middle Eastern land war - that would be why I was against the U.S. initiating a no-fly zone in Libya in the first place. But it raises the question: if regime change is not the goal of the NATO military mission, then what is?

U.N. Resolution 1973 authorizes "all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." Basically, the ostensible reason for involving ourselves in the no-fly zone is to prevent mass killings of civilians by Qaddafi's armed forces. That all sounds good. However, how is this actually going to work? How do we prevent Qaddafi from killing civilians who oppose him in the areas that he controls? Do we assume that everyone in Qaddafi's ostensible regions of tribal influence is a Qaddafi supporter and that everyone in the rest of the country is a member of the opposition? And if that's how our military actions are going to divvy up the country, how do we decide who counts as a civilian at that point?

Compared to the rebels, Qaddafi has overwhelmingly superior weaponry. Without interference by foreign ground troops, there is no credible way for the rebel forces in Libya to break Qaddafi's hold over his traditional power base unless either (a) Qaddafi's own troops depose him or (b) we provide massive assistance to the rebels in the form of materiel and logistical support. Hilary Clinton appears to be laying the groundwork for going down Path (b) by saying that "It is our interpretation that [resolution] 1973 amended or overrode the absolute prohibition of arms to anyone in Libya so that there could be legitimate transfer of arms if a country were to choose to do that."

It's pretty clear which way the wind is blowing, and it is summed up in the first paragraph of a New York Times article: "Leaders of the four dozen countries and international organizations meeting here on Tuesday made it clear that they agreed that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi would have to relinquish power, even though regime change is not the stated aim of the United Nations resolution authorizing military action against his forces." Yet Obama says that the U.S. will not attempt to "overthrow Gaddafi by force." (Apparently, dozens of Tomahawk missiles fired don't count as force.)

One of the worst aspects of George W. Bush's presidency was the abuse of the English language by endlessly repeating pseudo-patriotic phrases that form a kind of Orwellian Newspeak. (E.g., "war on terror," "homeland security.") Unfortunately, Obama's behavior is not a great improvement. I am not comforted to see that "regime change" and "force" have been added to the list of terms that our government is redefining.

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