Intervention in Libya will lead to a spread of WMD - int’l relations expert
From Kosovo to Afghanistan, from Iraq to Libya – the West comes in, posing as a savior, its troops bringing democracy and peace upon the troubled nations. And yet, Libya is in ruins, Iraq is in a war for survival and Afghanistan is swarming with radicals and drug lords. Has the policy of intervention brought anything except blood and chaos? And who is going to fix what has been broken by reckless invasions? Is “humanitarian intervention” even possible – or it’s just a pretty cover-up for cynical politics? We ask these questions to international relations expert, associate professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson school of Public Affairs at the University of Texas – Alan Kuperman is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Alan Kuperman, author, associate professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson school of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us today. Now, as Hillary Clinton, the then U.S. secretary of State put it: “we came, we saw, he died” – now, she was obviously talking about the toppling of Gaddafi and Libyan bombing campaign. Can you really just drop some bombs, give out arms and then leave – is that what passes for a victory?
Alan Kuperman: Oh no, as I’ve written it’s a total disaster. It’s been bad for Libya and it’s bad also for the U.S. and its allies and for the rest of the world. What we have is a worsening of a humanitarian situation, the death toll has increased by about 10 times. We turned a state that was an ally in the war against terrorism into now a safe haven to terrorists, where both Al-Qaeda and ISIS roam. There’s been proliferation of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles that can shoot down civilian airliners. There’s spillover of war to Mali – no, it’s been a total disaster.
SS: Also, NATO’s recent interventions in general – they’re justified as “humanitarian”. How can a military intervention be “humanitarian”? Bombing is not something humanitarian.
AK:I actually think that intervention can be humanitarian and I think that most of the interventions that NATO…
SS: But we’re talking about military interventions…
AK: Absolutely. Military intervention – if there, for example, in Rwanda, there was a genocide, in Cambodia - there was a genocide; if there had been military interventions, those interventions could have stopped the killers and saved lots of lives. There have been such interventions, for example in East Pakistan in 1971, there was an intervention that stopped the genocide; there was intervention in Uganda, when Idi Amin was killing people. So, military intervention can save lives, and, in fact, NATO interventions, for example, in Bosnia and Kosovo, in Libya, were motivated by a humanitarian impulse – the problem is, that sometimes they backfire and they wind up actually increasing the humanitarian suffering, increasing the death toll, and that’s what happened in Libya.
SS: Like you pointed out, if things were bad under Gaddafi, they are even worse now – I mean, Libya is a failed state today with warring factions tearing it further apart. Why doesn’t anyone want to interfere now?
AK: I think it’s because it is a very dangerous place and the West, NATO and the Arab League and the Gulf GCC – those folks were willing to have a easy intervention, which was what they thought was going to happen in 2011, that it would just be quick and they would topple Gaddafi and then we would get a new democratic state that would be pro-Western; so that they were willing to do using just airpower, and there were few ground troops from Qatar, but no NATO ground troops. Today what we have is a renewed civil war in Libya. We have radical Islamic terrorists from Al-Qaeda and ISIS – and so, it would be very dangerous place to put NATO peacekeepers. There have interventions, there have been interventions by Egypt and by UAE and by Turkey, but these interventions are actually on opposing sides of Libya’s civil war. What there’s no stomach for, is the deployment of a large ground force of peacekeepers. And so, Libya is, as you characterized it correctly, it is a failed state that is in the midst of civil war and provides state haven for Islamic terrorists.
SS: Now, Gaddafi by the early 2000s, he began working with the West, he started disarming, getting rid of the WMD and curbing his nuke program – and a few years later, he is overthrown and killed. That’s not a very encouraging award for being cooperative, is it?
AK: No, it was very ill-conceived. It was one of the reasons that NATO should not have intervened in Libya. Gaddafi has been a very bad actor for many decades. He had sponsored international terrorism, he had sponsored rebels around the world, started civil wars in Africa and elsewhere. But he changed. He changed in around 2000, and then again, in 2003, when the U.S. led an intervention in Iraq, and Gaddafi said: “I don’t want to be the next target” and he gave up his nuclear weapons program, he started cooperating – even before that - in the war against Al-Qaeda, because he was a target of Al-Qaeda. So, in a sense NATO and Libya had a common enemy in Al-Qaeda, and they allied and shared intelligence to try and conduct the global war on terror. So, he was an ally of the West and despite that, in 2011, the U.S. and NATO decided to intervene to overthrow him and facilitate his being killed. What that does is undermine international nuclear non-proliferation policy, because what it says to anyone who has a WMD program is: “If you have your program, then you can deter intervention against you. But if you give up your program, then at some moment in the future, the international community may decide that you need to go, and you have no defense against it”. So, this intervention in Libya will probably promote the spread of nuclear weapons and other WMDs, so it’s very ill-conceived and very unfortunate.
SS: Now, the EU is planning for an operation in Libya, provoked by an uncontrollable stream of migrants there. Will the people trafficking be suppressed by military force, you think? Is this going to work?
AK: It’s a very dice and controversial situation. It seems to be rather cold-hearted and I think that if you have migrants on this ship and then you have European military forces taking action against those ships, there’s going to be big outcry in Europe that this violates the spirit of refugees’ conventions, and that this folks may in fact have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country, and so they deserve to have an interview to decide if they should get asylum. They’re not going to get that interview if what you’re doing is destroying these ships that they want to get on to get asylum. So, it may not formally violate any international law, but it violates the spirit of allowing folks to seek asylum, and I think that especially in the Left, Europe is going to be up in arms about this; so, I understand why they are thinking of pursuing it, but I’d be very surprised if that actually happens.
SS: Like you’ve pointed out – the chaos Libya was plunged into after NATO intervention turned it into a safe haven for Islamic State or other terrorist groups. So, is waging a war against IS in Iraq and Syria of no use until Libya is addressed as well?
AK: No, I don’t think it should be the top priority in the War on Terror. If you study military strategy, the probably most famous strategist is German from XIX century, Carl von Clausewitz, and he always talked about going to the center of gravity of the enemy, and the center of gravity of ISIS is not in Libya, the center of gravity of ISIS is in Iraq and Syria, and that’s where they are holding territory, that’s where they are recruiting, that’s where they are making money, that’s where they hatching plots that could attack the West, and so that needs to be the focus, I think, of Western efforts. That being said, you don’t want to have new safe havens and so, the radicals in Libya also need to be contained.
SS: But I want to talk about, you know, taking action in the center of gravity – I am talking about action against ISIS in Iraq. The U.S. is saying the Iraqi army doesn’t want to fight and Iraqis are saying they’re not getting enough help from the U.S. Can the Iraqi army do without a foreign intervention at this point? Are ground troops necessary?
AK: Ground troops, for sure, are necessary to contain and then defeat ISIS. The question is – who’s ground troops? They could be Iraqi ground troops, but then the question is which Iraqi ground troops? Will they be simply Shiite Arabs, or will they include Sunni Arabs as well as Kurds? So, they could be Iraqi, or they could be Iranian, or Iranian proxies or they could be Western troops. At the moment, we have a combination of all of those, and yet, they are not succeeding. They are not succeeding because they are not fighting together, they are not united, this is something where, actually, I think, the Obama Administration is one of the few areas where I agree with them, that the key to victory is to get all of the Iraqi people across ethnic and sectarian lines united. If they were united, then I think they could defeat ISIS rather quickly.
SS: Professor, you’ve said in one of your interviews on the anti-ISIS effort: “When Iraqis get their act together, think of themselves as Iraqis, not Sunnis or Shias – then we will come in”. But ISIS is close to Baghdad now. Is there really time to wait?
AK: It’s a very interesting game of chicken between the Obama Administration and the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Essentially, what Obama said – and I think he was correct to say this – is: “we want you, Iraqis, to unite, before we will come in and help a lot in this war”. The reason is, if the U.S. or NATO just came in and helped a lot, then the Shia-dominated government of Baghdad could say: “fine! We’ll just continue to oppress and ignore the Sunni, and the U.S. and NATO will help us to do that”. What would happen then, is that the Sunni in Iraq would say: “Our only potential friends are ISIS…” – and they would join ISIS; and so, it wouldn’t defeat ISIS, it would actually bolster ISIS. And so, what Obama said to Baghdad is: “You, Shia in Baghdad, you need to share power with Sunnis – you need to provide them with weapons, you need to incorporate them into your security forces and when you folks are united, then you will be able to start to make progress against ISIS, and we will actually help you do that”. However, there are hardline Shias in the government in Baghdad, and they are refusing so far to really share power or share weapons with the Sunni. And so, the U.S. is therefore withholding the full force of its intervention, and that’s part of the reason that you saw ISIS make progress, and essentially, what Obama is saying to Baghdad: “ISIS will continue to make progress until you share power with Sunnis”, and Baghdad is trying to basically blackmail Washington, saying: “Oh, ISIS is about to defeat us, you’d better come in and do more airstrikes!”
SS: But everything that we’re talking about right now: the ISIS, the Shias, the Sunnis, them being so fractured… I mean, the U.S. intervention in Iraq was what caused this mess in Iraq in the first place. So, is it fair to say that the U.S. troops need to be there to do the cleaning up right now? Because, don’t you think the U.S. sort of bears the responsibility?
AK: One can think of two reasons why the U.S. and its allies should be there: one would be this ethical argument that we broke it and so we need to stick around to fix it; and the second, which I think is more realistic in terms of driving policy, is that the U.S. has an interest in Iraq not being a failed state, Iraq not being a breeding ground for terrorists and ISIS not having a third or half of a country where it can produce revenue, train radical terrorists and send them around the world to strike against the U.S. and Western interests. So, whether it’s ethics or whether it’s self-interest, U.S. absolutely has an interest in defeating ISIS. The question is how? If the U.S. would go in too heavily right now, it would allow the Shia-led government in Baghdad to continue ignoring and oppressing and excluding Sunni, and that would actually bolster ISIS.
SS: Let me tell you an interesting fact: last week I spoke to Iraq’s interior minister, and he told me that no one wants to see American troops in Iraq – I mean, he wants more help from America, but they don’t want to see American troops in Iraq. Why is that in your opinion?
AK: Well, there’s a number of reasons. The Shiite militias that dominate Iraqi security forces were killing American troops the last time they were there – that was their raison d'etre, so if Americans come over there, they could be in crosshairs.
SS: I don’t think he was worried too much about the security of the American forces when he was saying that he doesn’t want to see American troops on the ground.
AK: No, I understand that, but I’m explaining that it wouldn’t be a new thing for these Iraqi forces to oppose Americans being there. They opposed them the entire time they were there. There were some folks who liked the Americans being there – those are, for example, Sunni moderates. But those Sunni moderates are being excluded right now from power and from weapons by the Iraqi government. So, I was just trying to say that this is not new. The folks who don’t want Americans to be there are the folks who always opposed Americans being there. They are the radical Shiites, associated with the government, and there are radical Sunni that are now calling themselves “ISIS” or the Islamic State.
SS: We’ve also heard Ashton Carter being worried about Iran being involved in this operation against ISIS in Iraq. So, Iran is actually at the forefront of international aid to Iraq against ISIS – and again, we see apprehension from the West about this role. Is this a pattern? Is intervening only okay when the West does it? I mean, Iranians are obviously helping to push out ISIS more than anyone else right now…
AK: I think there is a view in Washington and in NATO that, as you put it, the intervention is only right when the U.S. or NATO does it. You’ve seen the reaction to the deployment of Russian aid and Russian forces in Ukraine, and the same thing in Georgia – and those two interventions are in some ways analogous to Western interventions in Kosovo and in Bosnia and in Libya. So, yes, I think it’s quite common that each country thinks its interventions are justified and enemy or rival countries, when they intervene, they are not justified.
SS: Even though you’re fighting the same cause?
AK: In this case, it’s very interesting, because the U.S. and Iran have a common enemy in ISIS, but U.S. believes that if we defeat ISIS then we’ll go home, but if Iran defeats ISIS, then Iran will essentially control Iraq as a… not a vassal, not a tributary state, but as an extension of its regional power with an ultimate goal of having some sort of regional hegemony.
SS: Why not work with Iran on the strategy to defeat ISIS together?
AK: Again, it’s because, I think, we have a common interest in defeating ISIS, but beyond that, we do not have common interests.
SS: President Obama has said in an interview that a more aggressive effort to rebuild Libyan society was needed for success. Why does America see itself as world’s carpenter on contract? I mean, going around rebuilding societies? Why the desire to nation-build elsewhere, not at home, when, you know, I hear some major American politicians admit that their own system is broken and needs to be fixed?
AK: I think that really goes to the root of what America is – America has ideals that it feels are not simply for Americans, but that are universal. These are ideals of freedom, of liberty, of the right of expression, of the right to life and to seek happiness.
SS: Don’t you feel like America is in different than when these ideals were, like, worn, at its peak in 70s or in 80s? Because a country that has Baltimore and has the biggest growing gap between poor and rich – really, can they really go elsewhere and rebuild other societies when they really need to fix their own in the first place?
AK: First of all, I would say that America is still considered by the rest of the world “the best place”. We have more people trying to come to America than are trying to go anywhere else on Earth, and so, I think that’s partially because of the economic success of America and partially because of these ideals that I talked about, that anybody can accomplish anything in America. Now, of course, this goes up and down over time, and we certainly have bad economic inequality at the moment, but that doesn’t change what America is, and what it is in people’s minds. Secondly, in terms of resources of America, we still have incredible resources to try and help the rest of the world. Our economy is not shrinking, it is growing. It is bigger that it has ever been before and we spend billions of dollars around the world, for example, doing foreign aid, democracy promotion…now, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, backfires, but it is largely well-intentioned. So, when you ask “Why does the U.S. want to be the world’s carpenter or contractor” – I think it is in our DNA, and it is especially in our DNA when there’s a place that we’ve helped to break. We do have this, what was known as, I think the “China barn” or “pottery barn” policy by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State under our last president, which is – “If you break it, you bought it”. So, when we break a place, like we broke Iraq, or like we broke Afghanistan, or like we broke Libya – I think that we do feel there’s a moral responsibility to try to fix it if we can. But then again, after a while, if we fail, then people get frustrated and tired, and that’s what the Obama Administration sort of represented: we were tired of trying to do what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan and so, there was a pullout. We were tired of these big interventions and so we did a small intervention in Libya, and the result is now that we have chaos in Iraq, chaos in Libya – and you know what? We’re going to have chaos in Afghanistan, it’s already growing. The casualties there are much bigger this year than they have been in the last few years, and Afghanistan is going to be the next basket case as U.S. and ally troops pull out. The fact of the matter is, these places are broken and I don’t think that America is going to stand aside and let them be broken; at some point we’re going to do something again, because yes, we do see ourselves as world’s carpenter on contract – we do feel we have a moral responsibility to the whole world.
SS: Thank you, professor, that’s all the time we have for today, but thanks for this wonderful interview. We were talking to professor Alan Kuperman, discussing humanitarian interventions and who needs to bear the responsibility for their consequences. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.