Over at the National Interest, Paul Pillar raises one of the issues with America’s current intervention in Libya that has not been discussed nearly enough: the effect on terrorism. When terrorism has been brought up in the context of Libya it is usually framed around Qaddafi’s past support for it—particularly the 1988 bombing Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland—and the possibility that he will return to supporting terrorism in the wake of the West’s attempt to depose him. There is also the loss of Libyan cooperation in the War on Terror that came after Qaddafi traded the country’s nuclear program in 2003 for better relations with the West.
The key point Pillar raises though is the potential the current intervention raises for blowback in the form of anti-American terrorism:
The dimension that is hardest to gauge but ultimately may have the broadest impact is the effect on perceptions and resentments of many people far beyond Libya who might be recruited into terrorism, or at least might support or sympathize with it. Any use of Western and especially U.S. military force in a Muslim country runs the risk of energizing Islamist terrorism. Such use bolsters the extremist narrative of a Judeo-Christian West that is out to kill Muslims, dominate their lands, and plunder their resources. This cost was a significant consequence of the Iraq War. As the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has dragged out, that war also has increasingly been seen as a motivator stimulating Islamist terrorists—as reflected in the statements of those who have been captured, including ones captured in the United States. To the extent that the story coming out of the operation in Libya becomes focused less on Qaddafi and more on the immediate drama of Western forces, military action, and inevitable civilian casualties, this operation as well will play into the extremist narrative.
Pillar hits the nail on the head. The strategy of groups like Al Qaeda is predicated on recruiting young Muslims to fight—and sometimes kill themselves in the process—against so-called “Crusaders” that are presented as being at war with Islam. Advocates of intervention, like Anne-Marie Slaughter, have claimed that American intervention on behalf of the Libyan people will actually demonstrate America’s inherent goodness to the Islamic world. This is unlikely for two reasons: 1). The U.S. intervention in Libya is taking place concurrent to the blind eye America is turning to the repression of Muslims in Bahrain and Yemen by pro-American dictators; and 2). The intervention is occurring simultaneous to the two other occupations in Muslim countries that Al Qaeda and their ilk cite as proof of a “Crusader” war on the Ummah.
Interventionists are likely to claim that jihadists like Bin Laden are opposed to Qaddafi, so therefore they won’t be able to point to American intervention against him to further their narrative. True, Bin Laden and co. are not fans of Qaddafi, and Qaddafi had been cooperating with the United States against Al Qaeda since early in the War on Terror. But Al Qaeda was not particularly fond of Saddam Hussein either, but they were able to successfully spin the Western sanctions and U.S.-led bombing campaigns against the Iraqi dictator of the 1990s as part of a war against the Iraqi people, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003 became a cause célèbre for jihadists.
The Obama administration’s tactics seem to indicate that they are somewhat cognizant of this fact, but it’s half-hearted effort is unlikely change the minds of those predisposed to seeing aggression against Islam as inherent in American actions. The repercussions of the current intervention in Libya will not be evident immediately, but like Iraq, it will continue to fester for years and when the blowback does occur Americans will most likely be left to once again ask, “why?”
The Cato Institute’s Malou Innocent, writing at the Skeptics, shatters the illusions of those who think the Arab League’s seal of approval adds legitimacy to Western intervention in Libya in the eyes of Arab people:
But look at what countries make up the Arab League, among others: Libya (although it was suspended just recently), Sudan (where thousands of innocent civilians were killed), Somalia (a lawless pirate mecca), Yemen (a medieval backwater), and a smattering of other countries led by sclerotic regimes. It is one thing for the United States to seek the support of the Arab League when a mission is not premised on the protection of human rights; the Gulf War of 1990-91 comes to mind. But when it comes to the case of intervention in Libya and the stated premise of the mission—to stop the killing of innocent civilians—it should go without saying that most, if not all, of the Arab League’s members have no legitimate claim to moral authority. The Arab League means little to the Arabs living under those individual regimes. Arab League support might mean a lot to us, but it means a whole lot less to the Arabs we’re trying to sway.
When people are rising up against the very governments that make up the Arab League, it’s unlikely that the same body is seen as representing the interests of the so-called “Arab Street”.