Connecting the Dots: The Search for Meaning in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria


What a stark reminder of how short the road is between heresy and received wisdom.

Even in the mainstream press, today the majority view is that the intervention in Iraq was a barely veiled disaster.

In excess of 100,000 civilian casualties, 4486 American soldiers dead, 32, 226 wounded, and over a trillion dollars spent. The statistics are mind numbing.

And all for what?

With the exception of a recent spate of stories concerning the US rethinking its distinctly white elephantine, imperial embassy in Bagdhad’s not-s0-green zone, memories of the painful episode in Iraq are receding fast. Although images of Shock and Awe, Abu GhraibGuantanamo Bay, and Fallujah occasionally return, spectre-like,  to haunt the popular conscience, it is clear that less than a decade after the invasion began, most people prefer forgetting to remembrance.

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Libya: Lingering Doubts

From the outset of the Libyan episode, there have been ample grounds for reservation. Both the manner in which events have unfolded, and also the longer-term implications, are troubling.

Objections to the lack of public debate, to NATO’s tendency to reach for the gun before exhausting all alternatives to the use of armed force, to the ambitious pursuit of goals well beyond those authorized  by the UN Security Council,  and to the near complete incoherence of Western policy in the region seem well-founded. Quite apart from the unknown number of people killed during the rebellion, respect for international law and for the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect have been among the more notable casualties.

The broader concern is that for NATO participants, policy has become an instrument of war.   But that, and a host of other issues remain unaddressed. With Gadhafi’s execution, these kinds of considerations have by and large been lost in the orgy of triumphalism and self-congratulation.

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Canada and the world post-9/11: What has been learned?

Looking back over decade since 9/11, what events and developments stand out globally? Among others:

  • The ongoing Global War on Terror and associated Western military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The hollowing out of the middle class, the financial crisis and the continuing Great Recession.
  • The lost opportunities to support non-violent political reform during the Arab Spring.

9/11 changed everything, and the carnage and consequences engendered by that day haunt us still.

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Libya and the World after Gadhafi: Preliminary Thoughts

It is perhaps premature to propose potential conclusions and lessons learned in the immediate wake of the rebel victory over the Gadhafi regime. On the surface, it appears that NATO support for the rebellion assisted materially in achieving the objective of ridding Libya of a widely detested dictator.

In terms of success, this would seem to represent more than can be said for Western efforts in backing one side in the Afghan civil war, or intervening under manifestly false pretences in Iraq. Both of those episodes have proven extremely costly. Still, before breaking out any more champagne, there are several issues regarding the Libyan affair which require more sober and sustained reflection than they seem to have received at the international meeting on Libya’s future held September 1st in Paris.

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Five Potential Pitfalls of Western Military Intervention in Libya

In a posting penned a couple of weeks ago, I expressed serious reservations  over the growing prospect of a Western military intervention in Libya. A political and diplomatic resolution would have been far preferable.  It remains a mystery in Western capitals how the unenthusiastic consideration of a no-fly-zone somehow morphed, with minimal public or political debate, into to an ambitious and ever-widening program of ground attacks.  Now, suddenly, the dogs of war have been let slip, and the actions of yet another  “coalition” are in full swing.

The Chinese, Russians and Germans, among others, have already stated their misgivings, and both Brazil and India abstained from the sweeping UN resolution which authorized the air campaign. While conflict outcomes  and their implications are inherently difficult to assess or predict, there are a number of factors in place which suggest that this episode may not end well.

Consider the following:

  • This cannot, in the first instance, be considered a humanitarian intervention as set out under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. The explicit goal here is regime change, which means that Western countries have essentially chosen sides in a regional and tribally-based civil war – a highly fraught course, as  experience in Afghanistan and Iraq makes clear;
  • Passage of Resolution 1973 notwithstanding, the UN Security Council is not broadly representative of world power or opinion; its authority arguably outweighs its legitimacy – significantly, no Arab countries have yet joined in the bombing, the  African Union is not supporting the intervention, and the Arab League, while initially on side,  has since voiced concerns. The debilitating optics, and catastrophic consequences of Western warplanes again attacking an Islamic country and killing Muslims will almost certainly erode whatever support remains;
  • The citizenry in participating Western countries were not asked if they supported a more robust form of intervention that had been initially mooted. Support for the present course is likely thin, and will become more so if the duration of the violence is protracted and non-combatant casualties mount;
  • Diplomatic alternatives to the use of armed force were not exhausted earlier in the process, and there is no obvious post-war plan;  today, there appears little room for any kind of negotiated settlement or face saving way out. The lack of a dignified exit strategy could blow back, and encourage Qaddafi hang on;
  • Qaddafi ‘s regime, however unpalatable, is not obviously more authoritarian or less representative than those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman or Yemen, all of which still enjoy Western backing. Although no one will defend his appalling performance on human rights or corruption, the Colonel`s record of investing more than most in schools, hospitals, housing and infrastructure, together with coalition duplicity, suggests a degree of policy incoherence which can only become more obvious over time.

And then, of course, there are the notorious what ifs… What if the US decides that leading three wars simultaneously is too much, tries to hand off to NATO, and some members, including key players such as Turkey and Germany, balk? What if the campaign goes on and on, and nothing changes?  What if Egypt intervenes to break the stalemate or to protect the remaining rebel strongholds of Benghazi and Tobruk, effectively partitioning the country?

These are early days. If the intervention does not drag on, produces limited collateral damage, averts a slaughter,  and results in the formation of a popular, unified new government then it may yet prove justified. Taken in combination, however, the observations set out above are troubling, and underscore once again the inescapable problems associated with a reliance upon military force as the international policy instrument of choice.

Arms and the Man: What’s Next for Libya?

Libya is engaged in a civil war. New protests have broken out in Oman, Bahrain and Yemen. The uprising in Tunisia, the pioneer state of the so-called “Arab Spring,” is entering a second phase. As usual, the amateurish Obama administration has no idea what to do about any of this.

…America has established that its national policy in Libya is regime change. The question now is whether our inexperienced president will take concerted steps to back up that policy.

Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, boasted that the regime in Tripoli is not fazed by the prospect of U.S. intervention. “We are ready, we are not afraid,” he said Tuesday. “We live here, we die here.” Maybe that can be arranged.”

Editorial, Washington Times, 01 March 2011

Slowly but surely, the sound of sabres rattling is growing louder. Amidst a looming humanitarian crisis and incipient civil war, and denials notwithstanding, there are tell-tale signs of the ground being prepared. In the US and UK there is talk of establishing a no-fly zone, of sending in special forces, of arming and training the rebels…

As Western military assets are deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean and politicians are speaking increasingly of the possibility of some sort of  intervention, my sense of dread intensifies.

Where is the diplomatic offensive? Yes, the foreign holdings of the Qaddafi  family have been frozen, an arms embargo applied, and legal proceedings are being investigated by the International Criminal Court.  But this does not constitute anything like the full court diplomatic press purported to be underway. In fact, it reveals diplomacy’s displacement. Why is no one other than Hugo Chavez calling for immediate negotiations, offering mediation and good offices, dispatching special envoys, demanding that the UN Security Council act to separate the combatants before the onset of full blown hostilities…?

Have we not seen this movie – the one with the tragic ending – before?

Do governments ever learn?

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