08 March 2011

Libya intervention: sci-fi/fantasy edition

This is getting out of hand. It was dumb when a bunch of Senators called for a no-fly zone over Libya. (Before you argue with me and say, "Oh that's not dumb." Stop furiously pounding on your keyboard and go read this.) William Daley put it best on Meet the Press, "Lots of people throw around phrases like no-fly zone — they talk about it as though it’s just a video game.”

Well, step aside video games sophists because you've been bested. Carne Ross at The Nation brings us 10 Non-Violent Options in Libya. In fairness, only about eight of the ideas are ridiculous and/or vapid. The remainder are things that are already being done and not particularly interesting or novel. I will quote them (not in full though) so you don't have to give The Nation page views for publishing this piece of specious science fiction fantasy tripe.

First, the good ideas:
3. Seek public declarations from all commercial companies that they will not do business with the Gadhaffi regime.
4. Immediately position monitoring units on all borders and a naval blockade to ensure that the military embargo under UNSCR 1970 is enforced[…].

On to the bad. I'll take them in the same order that Mr Ross suggests them:
1. Establishment of an escrow account for Libyan oil revenues: this would require further UNSC chapter VII authorization. At present, it appears that all oil revenues, including from oil produced from rebel-held areas, flows to the Libyan government. All payments should instead be paid into a UN-run escrow account, the proceeds of which would be released as soon as a representative government is established in Libya.
While this idea is "good" in that the oppressor's revenue would dry up, it would likely be ineffectual at best and malign–to the poor and needy–at worst. Gaddhafi would merely cut out all cash expenditures that do not further his immediate goal of conserving power and what public benefit is realized from these funds would dwindle to zero. It also sets the stage for a cutthroat winner take all battle for control of the trust fund if and when Gaddhafi is actually deposed.
2. Listing all Libyan personnel involved in repression for sanction under SCR 1970. Paras 22-23 of this resolution encourage states to nominate individuals to whom the asset freeze and travel ban would apply. [...] The UN or Security Council members should make public this encouragement to Libyans on the ground to nominate members of the security forces.
What's so fantastically wrong about this idea is that it represents not just a failure to learn from history, but a failure to learn from modern, recent history. Beyond the headline grabbing cases where paid informants gave biased, useless, or misleading information are the countless undocumented (or less documented) cases where 'informing' on countrymen is used, not for the betterment of society, but to settle scores or eliminate rivals.
5. An air blockade to the same effect might also be considered. This should of course exclude all evacuation and humanitarian flights, but the aim is to increase the isolation of the regime. Flights should by contrast be permitted to rebel-held areas. Such measures were imposed on Gadhaffi under the earlier sanctions regime over Lockerbie. He didn't like it.
In my intro paragraph we covered why a no fly zone is, most generously, a lot more fraught than those three tiny words seem to indicate. This suggestion goes one step further by being only a half measure. We are now to dictate the terms of all air travel in Libya, except without the imposition of a no fly zone (apparently, since it goes unmentioned). This would be an excellent idea were Libya surrounded by stable countries that had control of their own borders and airports; i.e. leaders who would be able to prevent Gaddhafi-loyalist flights from landing in their countries, if they wanted to. However, Africa just isn't like that (e.g. they just made the dictatorial ruler of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang the chairman of the African Union). Libya's neighbors can't even stop their own people from working as mercenaries for Gaddhafi. Without military intervention there is no way to dictate the use terms of Libyan air space, period.
6. Electronic jamming of all regime communications; interference with internet communications, stuxnet-like attacks on regime IT infrastructure. I hope that US and others are already trying to do this. If not, they should be.
Ah, now we're into the science fiction/fantasy portion of the list. Anyone who has read anything about Stuxnet ought to know better than to suggest we use "stuxnet-like" attacks on the Libyan infrastructure. Stuxnet was designed to carry out a very specific task, in a very specific infrastructure setup. In fact, it didn't even work when the particular configuration of Siemens devices was not what it expected. Sure, it could have done a great many different things, and the cow may jump over the moon.

Stuxnet's complexity and its use of (now burned) holes in operating system security take huge investments of time and resources. I know we live in a digital age where last week's trends are forgotten and everything, but this Libyan 'uprising' began only three weeks ago.

Furthermore, the other suggestions buried in this point (electronic jamming, internet interference) are fantastic notions, except that it's very difficult to implement such measures in a fashion that does not negatively affect the rebels. Since this is all hypothetical anyway, let's imagine an anti-Gaddhafi military member who has been tipping off the rebels; then you shut down his ability to communicate with the outside world, oops. I'm not saying that would be a net loss, I'm just saying it took me approximately 3 seconds to come up with ways that these vague prescriptions could be counter producive; and I don't even know very much at all about information warfare.
8. Set up publicly accessible websites using satellite and other reconnaissance data to inform anti-Gadhaffi forces of the disposition of regime military and irregular units. Or, get the data to them more covertly using encrypted satphones etc.
This point seems to be a fanciful imagination that the internet can only be used for good (a notion exhaustively disputed of late by Chris Lehmann at… The Nation, funny enough). To quote Lehmann briefly:
Meanwhile, plenty of equally unsavory nonstate actors have also adapted to the new networked web […] While Kenya has played host to a vital and influential site called Ushahidi, which helped modernize accurate citizen reporting of violence during the disputed 2007 elections […] the work of Ushahidi, while enormously valuable in certain ways, is decidedly ambiguous in others. While crowdsourcing is an indispensable good in responses to natural disasters, Ushahidi’s tracking of political violence and election monitoring inevitably involves data that, in the absence of third-party oversight, is “impossible to verify and easy to manipulate,” via false reports or rumors designed to foment panic in one camp or another. False reports are especially damaging to the documentation of human rights abuses, because just one falsifiable report can more or less permanently discredit an entire human rights operation.
If the potential for abuses in Mr Ross's piece are very different than those of Ushahidi I cannot see how.
9. Consider making the Libyan currency non-convertible. I'm no expert on this so list this for consideration only.
First of all, Mr Ross's claim that he is "no expert on this" would imply that he fancies himself an expert on the other suggestions. If this is the state of expert commentary in lettered discourse, I give up, there is no point continuing. Giving him the benefit of the doubt (that he meant, "I am completely devoid of knowlege on this point"), there's the issue of the immediate panic that would ensue following any a decision to this effect. Moreover, the potential future harms against those with legitimate reasons to flee Libya with Libyan currency are immense. The final nail in the coffin is the fact that African dictators have never cared about their own currency. I know that anecdotes mean little, but this one demonstrates my point colorfully, from a recent profile of the aforementioned Obiang family:
Giacalone said he escorted one [of Obiang's girlfriends] who racked up about $80,000 in purchases, including bronze and red dresses that cost nearly $7,000 apiece. Giacalone claims Teodorin gave him the embarrassing task of paying the tab from a Nike shoebox filled with shrink-wrapped bills.
This prescription doesn't hurt those who have enriched themselves over the past few decades. Those individuals are (usually) savvy enough to have stashed huge amounts of foreign currencies in various caches. This 'option' falls principally upon those who have a substantial, but not massive, amount of Libyan currency and need to either conduct business abroad, or flee the country (perhaps because Gaddhafi appears to be prevailing).
10. Establish representations in the rebel-held areas, to offer political support, facilitate communication with anti-Gadhaffi forces and coordinate aid disbursement.
I'm not sure if he's proposing that we insert individuals into Libya, but considering fallout over and detention of British SAS soldiers by Libyan forces, I sure hope not. In any case, establishing contact is something that is obviously fine, but again Mr Ross "details" what the goal of that contact should be with maddening vagueness, "political support" and "aid disbursement". One of those tasks is best left to neutral, internationally recognized aid agencies (who by the way, are already doing that). The other task, well I don't know what "political support" we need to offer the rebels. Our President has already condemned their opposition.

As to point 7, I've left it out because it is by far the most ethnically questionable. It's also the shortest, interestingly.
7. Provide immediate and substantial humanitarian assistance in rebel-held areas.
As Alex Evans wrote in response to Chris Albon's Atlantic piece:
[I]t’s also interesting to pause and reflect on the question of how to square his proposal with the concept of humanitarian space. The obvious answer to that is that the international community ought to be sending humanitarian assistance to both sides of the front line without prejudice or preference because, well, it’s humanitarian.
Mr Ross, as well as many others who are enamored with Mr Albon's "drop pizzas, not bombs" seem to have given little thought to the situation that millions of Libyans in pro-Gaddhafi held areas now find themselves. Moreover, the writ of aid agencies is to be apolitical (Evans' piece does a good job showing why this is impossible in practice), compelling them to offer aid to citizens not just in rebel held areas.

Perhaps I'm cynical (check blog header for more info), but armed groups (of both insurgent and pro-regime flavors) have a pitiful track record of not manipulating, often by force, food and medical aid to their own advantage; humanitarian concerns be damned. To be clear, I am not against giving food aid, but far more thoughtful consideration needs to be taken as to the how, when, where, and what than pieces like Mr Ross's demonstrate.

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