First of all, to say I’m not keen on military intervention is a huge understatement. The only instance in which I felt we had the high ground was when we took part in the 1995 NATO attacks on Kosovo to stop ethnic cleansing and mass rapes. (And even about that, I have some doubts.) And it’s always a red flag when human rights rhetoric is used to justify military intervention.
So when I got invited to the White House blogger call on Libya today, I asked a pretty obvious question.
“We sell massive amounts of arms to repressive regimes in the Middle East, and now in Libya, we’re using our arms to stop them from using their arms against their own people,” I said. “Wouldn’t it make more sense not to sell arms to repressive regimes in the first place?”
Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, hemmed and hawed a bit.
He said that the Libyan government had a relationship with the United States until the uprising, and that the situation had changed. He also said it was an “interesting case” with the Mubarak government, that the U.S.’s “longstanding relationship with the Egyptian military allowed us to pay a positive role in some respects.”
“We need to take a step back and assess the strategy of arming different regimes, look at it regionally and country by country, understanding the change that’s being made and balance that with our interests.”
Rhodes responded to a question from Spencer Ackerman about whether the U.S. was planning to expand its mission in Libya to include ground troops.
“It’s premature to hazard any predictions that US would take place in such a force. For time being, there are absolutely no plans to put boots on the ground. We’re dealing several steps ahead, and right now, the US is not planning anything like that,” he said.
Greg Sargent asked him to comment on preparation for the post-Gaddafi Libya.
Rhodes emphasized that U.S. plans are restricted to “civilian protection, a narrowly defined military mission – the no fly zone and stopping advance of Gaddafi’s forces.” He said there would be no military action geared toward regime change.
“There’s no international mandate for that,” he insisted. “The Libyan opposition did not ask us to do that, they affirmed again today that the Libyan people should be the ones to do that. Change in Libya has to be driven by Libyans.”
He said Gaddafi ceded his legitimacy by going after his own people, but “it doesn’t follow that we would go in and remove him militarily.”
The U.S. is taking non-military actions to push him out, Rhodes said. “We’re cutting off cash, whatever we can do to isolate him internationally – anything meant to serve the goal of a Libya not governed by Gaddafi, make the transition to that kind of government. It doesn’t mean we won’t pursue a government not under Gaddafi through any other means we have. It’s not as if we haven’t learned the lessons of Iraq.”
(Greg’s take is here.)
David Dayen said he wasn’t sure regime change was the crux of the argument: “We’ve become the air force for the Libyan opposition in a civil war, shooting at Gaddafi’s troops.” He wanted to know how that fit the guidelines set out for humanitarian intervention.
“We realized the no-fly zone on its own would not protect the Libyan people. Expanded resolution to cover other concerns, because he could go into other towns and massacre civilians. The concern was that the largest scale massacre we feared was Benghazi but other areas of concern,” Rhodes said. “This is a civilian protection mission. That’s what’s guiding what the strategy: targeting forces that pose a threat to the civilian population.”
(Dave’s post about the call is here. He’s as wary about mission creep as the rest of us, wondering what other “humanitarian intervention” involved arming opposition rebels — and just who are those rebels, anyway? )
Christina O’Donnell wondered about the “virtual silence from the White House” on Bahrain, seen in the Arabic world as a double standard.
“There are movements for democratic change across a wide variety of countries. There is violence against peaceful protesters in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria. Some countries that are friendly to us, and ones that are hostile. We oppose violence against citizens and against peaceful protesters. We don’t think violence is the way to resolve the situation in Bahrain. We think the best way to do that is through meaningful and inclusive dialogue,” he said. The difference in Libya, he said, were in terms of scale and the types of activity that Gaddafi was undertaking.
“He launched a military campaign within his own country against his own people. It exceeded in scale and potential catastrophe what we’d seen in any other part of the region,” he said.
“You saw the use of air assets, indiscriminate shelling against civilians. Not to diminish that we’re concerned about violence in other parts of the region, but this spiraled in a far more dangerous direction and there was the possibility of widespread effects. It was a different scale and magnitude.”
O’Donnell followed up. “Bahrain brought in troops from the Saudis, there are attacks night after night, people being threatened with rape and arrested,” she said. She questioned a “series of weak comments and no apparent action” from the White House.
“If you go back, you do see consistent concern about the use of force against the people of Bahrain. That is our policy there. It’s one that is seeking to get the parties into a negotiation. I’m certainly aware of all the criticisms you cite, we want a process that includes both sides in a meaningful way and that’s what we continue to work on,” he said.
The last question went to John Amato, who wondered why we didn’t intervene in the massacres taking place in the Ivory Coast. “Isn’t it genocide?” he said.
Rhodes said the administration was attempting to cut off sources of funding for Gbagbo, and “putting a lot of effort” into getting other African countries to work with them. “Also, President Obama is very popular in this part of the country, and he’s recorded messages that are being broadcast into the country, asking Gbagbo to go,” he said.
He said any change will be driven by “negotiations that have our strong backing. Actions risk spiraling into a broader civil conflict.”
Amato asked about the government blocking medication for those with HIV, which would likely result in deaths.”Is the US willing to at least get medicines into that country?” he said.
Rhodes said, “I do believe this issue of medical care, get assistance is something we’re working actively with the UN and the NGOs to do.” He said the U.S. has also been trying to “cut him off from the things he need to sustain the cadre of supporters he has around him.”
He said you couldn’t impose the “exact same set of tools” on the Ivory Coast that you can on Libya.