Posted tagged ‘Hold Onto Your Hat’

The Libyan Second Amendment Solution

March 20, 2011

I know I’ve been off-grid lately (work is the curse of the blogging classes), and I haven’t had much chance to think about much of anything — but in part it’s because I’ve been getting ready for a meeting with folks whose security clearances greatly exceed mine. (It is impossible to have a lower clearance than I do, just to be clear.  I’m a citizen, and that’s it.)

So now I’m in London getting ready for this meeting, and one of the Very Interesting People from whom I’ll be learning and I are watching the scroll on the silenced TV in the hotel lobby to see one fact roll by:  Qaddifi has distributed arms to a million Libyans.

Smart move, my interlocutor says.  Why? ask I — doesn’t this just destabilize the country further, threatening him as much as anyone else?

Yes indeed says my new teacher.  That’s the point.

As explained:  Qaddafi knows that can’t engage in a contest of strength.  He faces an overwhelming force and so he can’t just roll up his opposition.  Stalemate weakens him.  He doesn’t want to end up like Ceausesco, dead against a wall, ridiculed and reviled.  He wants at a minimum what Saddam Hussein got — martyrdom of a sort amidst the chaos of a country that has become ungovernable, a state that rebounds to the discredit of any successor regime.

This is of course the classic choice of crappy outcomes solution.  I have no idea what could possibly produce what some impartial observer might call a good outcome — either for Libyans or in the realization of actually articulated and reasonable ends for the U.S.

It certainly seems to this non-expert observer that we pursue intervention on the harp seal model:  cute megafauna get protected, snail darters don’t.

But it’s at least arguable that it would make sense to intervene in cases where that rise to the level of media-consciousness even if no realpolitic interest is genuinely at stake — if and only if we can demonstrate that such intervention actually stands a good chance of producing a better outcome than the present situation.  Sheer awfulness is not sufficient, in other words, if the results do not include a lasting reduction in horrible outcomes.

In that context, these million rifles tell you two things:

First:  that there are all kinds of ways for the best intentions to go pear-shaped, and we may already be witnessing one of them here.

Second (and I find this one consoling, in a depressing kind of way):  there are plenty of very smart members of our national security apparatus who understand this.  I have to tell you the most impressive thing to me about this hotel-lobby conversation was the sheer speed with which my conversational partner seized on the skill of Qaddafi’s manouver, and its potential for lasting mischief.

Me talking, not those I talk to — but this is genuinely important.  Folks on the ground have actually learned a lot from Iraq and Afghanistan.  That these lessons do not always reach either end of Pennsylvania Avenue is a problem — the problem I would say.

And with that — it’s off to learn something else, depressing no doubt.

Image:  Melchior de Hondecoeter, Bildnis von drei Kindern in einer Landschaft mit Jagdbeute (translation help, anyone?), 17th c.