Intervention in Libya, and It Wasn’t American

by Paul Pillar

Last week the United Arab Emirates, aided by Egypt, conducted airstrikes against Islamist militias in Libya. The targeted forces are among the contestants in the surging turmoil and civil warfare in Libya. The airstrikes do not appear to be part of a large and bold new initiative by Egypt and the UAE, which did not even publicly acknowledge what they had done. Nonetheless the strikes were, as an anonymous US official put it, not constructive.

The incident—along with some questions about whether it had caught the United States by surprise—has led to some of the usual hand-wringing about how US relations with allies are not what they should be, how there supposedly is region-wide dismay with a US failure to do more to enforce order in the region, and how if the United States does not do more along this line there may be an interventionist free-for-all. This type of reaction is inappropriate for at least two reasons. One is that it fails to take account of exactly how differences between putative partners do or do not make a difference. Sometimes such frictions matter for US interests and sometimes they don’t. Assuaging an ally is good for the United States if there is some payoff, not necessarily immediately, for its interests in behavior from the ally that is different from what it otherwise would be.

The other reason is that to the extent the United States may have encouraged interventionist free-for-alls, it is because it has done too much rather than too little. The United States’s own penchant for military interventions has been probably the biggest factor in a breakdown of previous noninterventionist norms in international relations. The United States also has acquiesced in similar norm-breaking behavior by others that is easy for the Egyptians and Emiratis to see. As former ambassador Chas Freeman notes, “Gulf states and Egypt have seen many instances of Israel doing whatever it wants without us. They’re saying, if Israel can use US weapons to defy the US and pursue its own foreign policy objectives, why can’t they?”

Three valid observations are worth making about this episode. One is that the turmoil in Libya to which Egypt and the UAE are reacting followed directly from regime change in which Western intervention was instrumental. The United States played less of a leading role in that intervention than some other Western states did, and according to the Pottery Barn rule it does not own the resulting wreckage by itself. But that background is worth remembering.

Second, the airstrikes are a reminder that if forceful things are to be done in the Middle East, the United States doesn’t necessarily have to be the one to do them. That principle applies to more constructive uses of force than hitting the Libyan militias. The UAE has a pretty good air force; maybe next time it can use it for more worthwhile purposes.

Third, the episode is a demonstration that even partners or allies are apt to be moved to action not to protect interests they share with us but to pursue objectives we do not share. Both Egypt and the UAE have reasons related to their own domestic politics and shaky legitimacy for taking sides in the Libyan internal war against the Islamists. The United States, by contrast, has no good reason to weigh in one one side or the other in that war. If friends and allies of ours get impatient with us for not doing more on behalf of goals that are important to them but not to us, tough.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright National Interest.

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  1. The UAE-Egypt air attacks on Libya instigated by Saudi Arabia are indirect warning to Qatar ( and Turkey) that has been funding and encouraging the Libyan Islamists to take control of the country.
    Qatar and Turkey have failed to put in power in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia its ‘allies’, the Moslem Brotherhood. Libya offers a last chance to get the Moslem Brotherhood in power there.
    Last week there was a visit to Qatar by Saudi Arabia ( and the GCC) to ask Qatar to stop its unilateral actions and its destructive alliances. The meeiting failed. The Gulf countries can’t openly punish/sanction Qatar that has a strong economical and strategic importance for the West despite its known support for Al Nusra, a ‘less violent’ affiliate to ISIS.
    Therefore I expect Qatar to retaliate by having its allies Al Nusra threat the GCC countries, and create diversion while its allies in Libya are taking over the country. I also expect more warnings to Qatar from Saudi Arabia using Egypt as a proxy since the West is giving a blind eyes to what is going on in Libya. The wake-up call would be a spill over in Tunisia.

    Qatar and Saudi Arabia have started their war more in the open now.

  2. Mr. Pillar, you state it as a given that opposing the Islamist in Libya is not important to us. That seems to go against conventional wisdom so I am interested why you think it is so.

  3. Well, I do not completely believe all this is happening without knowledge of US. It was actually the CIA asset Gen. Hefter who called bombing of Tripoli “international community” action. That moniker is trademark of US and as we know US is not very benevolent with use of their trademarks by others. It was clearly visible in case of Russia’s humanitarian aid to Lugansk in eastern Ukraine, which was immediately called anything else just no humanitarian help. These differences in sensitivity to “abuse” of US trademarks show, that US might know about whole thing and maybe even being an accessory to it.

  4. Regardless of who bombed whom, the bombs came from the U.S. Of course,they will be replenished by the U.S. too. If this is a free for all, then it was/is set in motion by none other than the U.S. Neocon infested military/industrial complex running the show. The only plus thing this has achieved, is to destroy the infrastructure, the civilian populations, while plunging the U.S. into deep debt to finance these insane adventures. To say the idiots have a death wish, especially pushing Russia, might be true. Regardless, considering the results so far in this “War on Terror”, who ever planned this, should be taken out behind the barn and put out of his/her misery.

  5. There is no meaningful difference between any of the foreign policies of any of the Gulf States and that of Washington.

    Regime change in almost all of them,(especially Qatar) would be extremely easy for Washington and all the local royals well know it.

    Libya, unlike Hamas is of importance to Washington for its oil. The Islamist militant group Operation Dawn has a philosophical core of Muslim Brotherhood and as such is probably representative of the will of the Libyan people.

    If Operation Dawn were to win the war and be able to set up a government, the oil wealth would probably devolve to Libyans as it did during the days of Qaddafi.

    On the other hand we have General Khalifa Haftar who is CIA .and was sent by Washington to buy and co-opt as much of the Libyan militias and tribes as he could and win the country for its multi national oil interests.

    So of course Egypt and the UAE are simply acting to help General Khalifa as it sees that that he has been getting his butt beat. And of course that is what Washington wants them to do .

    Protestations coming out of the State Department are simply intended to distance itself from such operations for political purposes.

    Even though Qatar is soft on the Muslim Brotherhood, it is under great pressure from other Gulf States to back that support off as the rest of them in unison hate the Muslim Brotherhood as they see it as an existential threat to their power and perqs.

    While the US might look the other way over Qatar’s support of Hamas, I doubt that it would do that in Libya which is much more important.

    Perhaps some wayward Royals have been helping Operation Dawn, but my best guess is that they have managed to get their hands on some of the oil money in a country that is essentially in chaos and there for are self funding.

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