Benghazi: What were the signs?

15 April 2011, 0240 EDT

Why did the Obama administration really intervene in Libya? Andrew Sullivan and Steve Walt both reject the administration’s claims (again) that we were on the verge of a mass slaughter in Libya if Qaddafi’s forces had been allowed to move into Benghazi. Walt also wants us to read Alan Kuperman’s op-ed “A False Pretense for War?”

As usual, Kuperman has an interesting take: First, he argues that there was no credible evidence of an imminent slaughter in Benghazi – and that, in fact, the signs point in the opposite direction – that Qaddafi has shown restraint with respect to attacking civilians. And second, because of this restraint, he contends we can infer that the real reason for the intervention was not humanitarian, but political — to save the rebels from defeat. Sullivan concludes something similar — that the Obama administration engaged in “fear mongering” to justify the war.

A couple of responses: On the first point, all of us agree that we don’t know for certain what would have happened in Benghazi because history was altered on March 18. This means that the evidence about what Qaddafi’s forces have done since March 18 doesn’t tell us much – for example have his forces shown restraint in Misurata because they are not predisposed to attack civilians, because they are not yet in a position to wage mass reprisal killings, or because they are being deterred by NATO? None of us know at this point. But, this is somewhat besides the point. We have to go back to the days in the run-up to the March 18 Security Council vote to analyze the situation as it looked from that point.

I’ve made my case on this here and here, so I’ll only add/reiterate a few points: Prior to my academic career, I was an intelligence analyst in INR at the State Department — in the office of Soviet and East European analysis. In 1992 and 1993, I served as the analyst for Bosnia, Croatia, and Poland. When the war in Bosnia broke out in March 1992, my portfolio was expanded to include the coordination of collection and analysis of war crimes and atrocities. Predicting a mass atrocity event in the midst of highly fluid events is not easy – and it certainly is not an exact science (all intelligence is probabilistic). Intelligence analysts and decisionmakers have to make judgments on the basis of incomplete information –made even more complicated by all the noise/propaganda in the system. I’m not privy to the intelligence assessments on Benghazi, but the factors that I would have looked for — the pace and flow of the battle, the disposition of the forces arrayed against Benghazi, the nature of Qaddafi’s regime, the nature of the rebel force and the fact that a large portion of it emerged out of a civilian demonstration movement, and the fact that the Benghazi uprising was the epicenter of the anti-Qaddafi revolution among others – all point to a credible (probabilistic) threat to the civilian population located there.

These factors also seem to have influenced the assessments of the human rights and humanitarian groups operating in Libya. For example, on March 16, ICG issued an open letter to the United Nations that began:

In light of the grave situation in Libya, we urge Security Council Members to take immediate effective action aimed at achieving a ceasefire in place and initiating negotiations to secure a transition to a legitimate and representative government. This action should be backed by the credible threat of appropriate military intervention, as a last resort, to prevent mass atrocities.

Finally, very few mass atrocity events are laid out according to some premeditated, master plan. More often than not – e.g. Sri Lanka, Guatemala, El Salvador, East Timor — they occur as a result of the exigencies of a particular battle or campaign and the reprisals that follow (or come near the) defeat of rebel forces.

The events of March 12 – March 18 included many signals that suggested Benghazi could have turned ugly very quickly. Whether or not that is the case, we’ll never know – but to summarily dismiss the potential threat is just wrong.

On the second point, Kuperman and Sullivan offer nothing more than simple conjecture about the administration’s motive for intervention — that it acted on false pretense and engaged in fear mongering to justify and sell the intervention. Again, we’ll have to wait for the record to be more fully revealed. For example, we don’t know how the intelligence community saw the situation and what they were telling the decisionmakers. We also don’t know exactly what the administration officials knew and believed — i.e., were they exploiting the humanitarian case or did they believe it? To date, we only have a few limited bits of data on what Obama’s advisers were thinking. Unlike Kuperman, Marc Lynch, for example, actually met with Obama’s advisers. His conclusion:

My conversations with administration officials, including but not limited to the one recounted by the indefatigable Laura Rozen, convinced me that they believed that a failure to act when and how they did would have led to a horrific slaughter in Benghazi and then across Libya.

So, it seems to me that there were credible (though certainly not absolute) reasons to conclude that we were on the verge of a mass atrocity event. And, we have several officials in the administration who apparently perceived that threat as imminent.

If this is the case, our task as analysts is to figure out how to reconcile the challenges and imperatives of preventing potential mass slaughter with the complexities, costs, and dangers of military interventions. It should not be to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that the potential for mass violence doesn’t exist.