Will Libya Become a Second Iraq?

Since the United States performed an abrupt about-face on Libya, supporting a U.N. resolution that authorizes “all necessary measures” to counter Qaddafi’s assault on the rebels, military intervention appears likely. Opponents of intervention urge their audiences to recall the Iraq invasion—also launched, in part, on humanitarian grounds—and keenly insist on drawing parallels with that disaster.

But are comparisons with Bush’s attack on Iraq accurate?

The argument for invading Iraq was couched in the context of fighting terrorism and made by political forces who sought to capitalize on that context. Neoconservatives, who saw the political climate as an opportunity to advance Israeli interests by subsuming them under the “war on terror,” avidly pressed for war. Republicans, eager to exact revenge for September 11th and aggrandize power, cared little whether the Arabs selected for destruction were perpetrators of the offending crime.

As for Iraqis, while many hoped for Saddam’s demise, few supported American invasion. The most zealous Iraqi advocates of war were opportunists who lived abroad in posh self-imposed exile. And while hawks sounded the appropriate noises about “liberation” now and again, that rhetoric saturated the discourse only after—and only because—the earlier pretexts of WMDs and al-Qaeda “links” vanished.

Today, the political mood could scarcely be more different. The revolt that now sweeps the Arab world stands as a devastating rejoinder to neoconservatives, who painted Arabs and Muslims as innately fond of terror and despotism. Authors of yesterday’s events, neoconservatives are now desperate just to appear in the footnotes. They have vacillated wildly, with some decrying the Egyptian revolution only to urge help for Libya’s rebels.

Whatever their opinion, it is the Libyans and the Arabs themselves who have most urgently raised the call for intervention. Libya’s rebel commanders and the transitional government in Benghazi have for weeks demanded a no-fly zone and air support. The Arab League, an ossified organization nervous over the prospect of further roiling the masses, reflected popular Arab opinion by stamping its seal of approval on the rebels’ pleas. Indeed, when the UN passed the resolution inviting air strikes, Benghazi erupted in euphoria.

The differences in both the political climate and the balance of forces on the ground clearly differentiate Iraq from Libya. But they do not “disappear” the possibility that Libya may end up like “post-war” Iraq: a nation deeply divided not by sect and language but by geography and tribe. For Western warplanes may shield rebel enclaves and cities, but what role will the French, British, and Americans play when the rebels try to advance westward and capture or recapture areas run by Qaddafi? Though the choreographed displays of “support” suggests Qaddafi’s base may be broad rather than deep, he still retains the support of his tribe and other allied tribes.

As one civilian in Tripoli opined after learning of the U.N. resolution’s passage, “Civilians holding guns, and you want to protect them? It’s a joke, We are the civilians. What about us?

This complicated reality blunts the persuasive force of the interventionist position, but also dampens the appeal of the non-interventionist one. Action today may pose risks for tomorrow, but inaction today poses risks for today as well as tomorrow: can we truly tell Libyans, “I don’t support intervention because I know better than you and, believe me, it’s better if you are crushed by Qaddafi than rescued by air strikes that may pose risks down the line?”

That is one of many questions that both sides of the debate will need to pose, and answer, in the coming days and weeks.

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam blogs on Islam and America at his website, Crossing the Crescent.