There has been a lot of chatter online about the UN-approved NATO attacks on Moammar Gaddafi’s military forces in Libya. Here are a few myths and facts:
Myth: This action is illegal or unconstitutional, for both the US and the UN.
Fact: Actually, since he’s notified Congress, and so long as he pulls out all US armed forces within 90 days, he’s well within what the War Powers Act of 1973 allows:
The War Powers Resolution requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war.
Considering that Gates has already said that the US’ role in this action is going to be quite limited as France and the UK take over, all US forces will have been withdrawn well before the ninety days are up:
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday that the U.S. expects to turn control of the Libya military mission over to a coalition — probably headed either by the French and British or by NATO — “in a matter of days.”
In his first public remarks since the start of the bombings, Gates said President Barack Obama felt very strongly about limiting America’s role in the operation, adding that the president is “more aware than almost anybody of the stress on the military.”
As for the UN, Juan Cole points out that the United Nations Security Council doesn’t have much in the way of legal constraints on its actions, and what has been done to date is well within them.
Myth: If the rebels win, Al-Qaeda takes over.
Fact: Al-Qaeda’s chief allies, the Taliban, have condemned both the rebellion and the outside assistance received by the rebels.
Myth: Obama is directing this whole affair and the UK, France and other nations are only along as window dressing.
Fact: It’s actually the other way around….
As Robert Fisk notes, Obama did not want to get US troops involved directly in Libya in large part because of overcommitments of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though Britain and France have been pressuring him for weeks to do so (as shown here, here and here (where the administration expresses scepticism over the proposed no-fly zone). Instead, Obama had been trying without success to get the Saudis to send arms to the rebels, something the House of Saud is not willing to do despite its hatred of Gaddafi as they don’t want to be visited by the Arab Spring that’s toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and now possibly Yemen, as key Yemeni commanders defect to their opposition; this is of course why the Saudis have sent troops to shore up the Bahrainian government against the protests there.
So, then: Why do Britain and France want to aid the rebels?
Oil and gas, as Gaddafi claims? Unlikely, as Libya has only 2% of the world’s known reserves at a time when technology to use barely-tapped heavy-oil reserves, such as the Orinoco fields of Venezuela, is inexpensive enough for nations using it to make money hand over fist so long as oil prices stay above $35 to $50 a barrel (they are currently hovering around $100 a barrel and have been for some time).
Fear of having to deal with some of the hundreds of thousands of Libyan refugees fleeing Gaddafi that are currently overwhelming Tunisia? Possibly, though it’s unlikely that more than a few thousand will make it into Europe.
Wanting to get into the good books of the people of the Middle East by backing at least the Libyan portion of the Arab Spring movement that’s already swept out the old rulers of Egypt and Tunisia? Probably, though of course the argument that American opponents of US involvement in Libya have made — why aren’t you going after Bahrain/Yemen/Saudi Arabia/Ivory Coast/etc.? — could just as easily be made here as a way to diminish any points for virtue that the UK and France hope to acquire. Juan Cole addresses the hypocrisy argument thus by pointing out that Gaddafi’s crackdown is orders of magnitude worse than what protesters have faced elsewhere during the Arab Spring:
That the world community has intervened in Libya but not in say, Yemen and Bahrain, has raised cries of hypocrisy. These charges are largely deserved. It is worth noting, however, that nowhere else in the Arab world where there have been widespread protests has the regime consistently responded with such massive brutality as in Libya. Yemen, with the sniper massacre of crowds on Friday, is moving in that direction, but Qaddafi has likely killed thousands since February 17, not just dozens.
From February 17, a peaceful protest movement broke out throughout Libya. Civilian crowds gathered without violence downtown, in Benghazi, Tobruk, Dirna, Zawiya, Zuara and even in the outskirts of Tripoli as in the working class town of Tajoura. City notables and military men in the east of the country formed a provisional government. Many diplomats declared for the provisional government, as did many officers and even cabinet members.
The Qaddafi regime responded with brutal violence to these non-violent protests. Early on, live fire was used against protesters in Tripoli itself. Last week, convoys of tanks rolled into Zawiya, supported by heavy artillery, firing on civilian crowds and on civilian apartment buildings. The tanks occupied the city center, and there are reports of a mass grave of the protesters. They were just protesters. They were easily defeated because they did not know, and most of them still do not know, how to handle a weapon. There were large numbers of self-inflicted gunshot wounds in the rebel ranks.
Russia’s Putin, by using as Gaddafi does the loaded word “crusade” to describe the action that he opposes, apparently hopes to invoke in the Muslim world bad memories of previous Western-world actions. And of course China’s government, which like Saudi Arabia is extremely worried about the possibility of the Arab Spring turning into a revolution (in this case a “Jasmine Revolution“) within its borders, so much so that various Chinese dissidents have suddenly vanished from sight, also condemns the attacks.
Meanwhile, that notorious weathervane, the Arab League’s Secretary-General Amr Moussa, has retracted his previous condemnation of the NATO attacks, which itself was a step back from his earlier approval of the no-fly zone; not that most observers in or outside the Middle East, Gaddafi included, actually care about what the Arab League thinks (Googling “arab league worthless” brings up links like this one and this one).
And so what do the Libyan people think of all this? Can’t vouch for all of them, but at least some of them, some of those with cellphones or internet access, seem to be cheering the NATO involvement, as shown here (per this Tweet from ShababLibya). The rebels certainly seem to be happy; they cheered the UN resolution permitting the military incursion. Considering that Gaddafi is believed to have killed thousands of Libyans as part of his crackdown in the weeks before the start of the civil war, this isn’t at all surprising.
What will the future bring? My guess is that US military involvement has peaked and is already being phased out as the French and British take over; I wouldn’t be surprised to see all US forces disengaged from this mission within a month’s time. Great effort seems to be in use to avoid having ground troops on Libyan soil; whether the French and British can continue to avoid using ground troops is anybody’s guess. Much depends on whether, as Juan Cole predicted, what’s left of Gaddafi’s officer corps does a Yemen and rejoins their old comrades who have already defected. (I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that money was thrown at them to do so, much as the US bought the covert support of key Iraqi generals in 2003.)