August 24, 2011
Since the West’s botched invasion of Iraq, general consensus has had it that Western military intervention doesn’t work. Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine and the war on terror all but turned the simplistic conclusion into incontrovertible fact.
But around that time an ignored body of counter examples began to emerge. Far from being lost or unwinnable, the war on terror was making significant gains. Cells were being dismantled through sophisticated intelligence, or literally being torn apart by drones. Vows to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders had amounted to little. In Somalia, amid the specter of Black Hawk Down, al-Shabaab was losing ground to western-backed African troops.
The campaign to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi thus emerged as an intriguing test case. As the NATO-backed rebels and Gaddafi loyalists slipped into a protracted stalemate, pundits took it as proof that the West had learned nothing from its misadventures since 9/11; while Washington, in staying the course, appeared determined to show the world – if not convince itself – that military intervention could bring about desired results.
The rebel sweep through Tripoli over the weekend was supplemented by 68 NATO airstrikes. But it wasn’t just shear muscle; planning for Sunday’s offensive began three months ago, with NATO and rebel forces arming sleeper cells in Tripoli. Since then targeting of Gaddafi forces grew more precise with the introduction of Predator drone missiles. NATO surveillance and coordination with rebels also improved.
Is the astonishing rebel advance in Libya an aberration, distorting the general ineffectiveness of military might to achieve its aims, or a reminder of just how decisive hard power can be?
To answer that question, one needs to consider how the failure of western military intervention over the last decade – notably in Iraq and Afghanistan – has impacted the West’s approach to intervention. Rather than giving up on this central component to geopolitical dominance, western powers have honed their approach. This has seen fast advances in unmanned aircraft, a greater emphasis on consensus building, larger more sophisticated intelligence sharing, and, not least importantly, a more judicious application of force. Note that the West resisted military involvement in Tunisia and Egypt, and where it hasn’t, in Libya, its campaign to strip Gaddafi of his robes was matched by massive popular uprising.
News outlets have been filled with claims that the West has lost its ability to shape the global agenda. The latest events in Libya should give pause to that claim, as should the military outcomes mentioned above.
Although Libya still must secure a path to political and economic recovery, what the West has confirmed in assisting rebels in their takeover of Tripoli is that it still has the power to get its way with tyrants it opposes. That’s got to be a scary thought to ruthless dictators, who just a few years ago could breathe easy witnessing the failure of western military forays to deliver desired results. It should also be a humbling reminder to custodians of this profession, too many of whom confused the Bush years for the long-term trajectory of geopolitics.