Losing Lawrence in Libya

The United States is right to resist the trend of sending military advisers

I wonder if anyone in the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence popped in “Lawrence of Arabia” on Tuesday and watched Peter O’Toole famously tell the British Officers’ Club, “We have taken Aqaba.” When the United Kingdom announced that day that it would send military advisers to Libya, while the United States announced it would not, a shift became clear: in United States foreign policy, expect more drones and less T.E. Lawrence.

The United States led the attack on Muammar Al-Gaddafi’s regime through the assault on anti-aircraft installations last month, but has effectively removed itself from leadership on Libya. While it continues bombing, its allies have escalated involvement that has until now only ensured stalemate in Libya. With the rebel forces too disorganized to take much advantage of air superiority, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom are all sending advisers to organize the rebels.

It’s been a long slog through history since the camel-backed victories of the Arab Revolt during the First World War. The U.K. advisers on their way to Libya will most likely not gulp down lemonades after a camel assault in Lawrence fashion. Yet there is something surprising about the enthusiasm of Europe’s response to the situation in Libya. Even before this announcement of the sending of military advisers, the willingness of the old guard of Europe, France and the United Kingdom, has come as a surprise. The jokes about France’s military ineptitude and the narrative of both nation’s downsizing of military capability and involvement no longer ring true.

Instead, it would appear the United States stands at a crossroads, at least of involvement in foreign engagements for the near future. United States policy has not exactly followed the T.E. Lawrence route. Rather than train local rebels to mount their own insurgencies, maintaining advisery involvement on the ground, if we go in, we go in big, then worry about the training later. There do not appear to be too many people confident of what will happen when these after-the-fact trainees take over primary operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Concern, instead, centers upon whether we will simply abandon our allies upon withdrawal. In what appears to have been a move to prove Afghanistan would not be abandoned, the government has now touched off international concerns we will maintain permanent bases in the nation. The questions of the fallout after U.S. withdrawal are difficult enough that it appears we are determined to avoid similar ones about a new involvement any time soon.

The front line for the United States is not Libya. It remains in our (mostly) covert operations in Yemen and our Predator drone strikes in Pakistan that continue to add to tensions there. In Pakistan, droids have largely replaced soldiers. Pakistan has complained about American use of drones over its territory; now we will appease Pakistan by providing it with 85 “Raven” drones.

As support escalates in Libya, it appears the U.S. response will follow this shadow war example, now relying on the same tool, the Predator drone. What makes this response interesting, however, is that other nations are not pursuing such a limited approach. Algeria appears to have aggressively backed Gaddafi’s regime in disregard to the United Nations and international community. Meanwhile, the nation providing uniforms and weapons to the Libyan rebels is not the United States, but Qatar. The nation that will then begin processing oil from the rebel-held eastern Libyan oil fields will not be the United States, but Qatar.

No one will expect Qatar to morph into the next international superpower, but its involvement represents an ambitious, straightforward, investment. The European nations, however, do not seem clear on what role they have assumed. Less than ten advisers peer nation will not turn the war in Libya. If anything, they will help promote order in the rebel forces to avoid decisive defeat. It appears clear, however, that even with total air superiority, the rebels’ organization is at best a work in progress. Mass defections in the Libyan army or a significant change in the equation will be needed if the rebel efforts are to succeed.

If they remain committed to their promises that such advisers will be the only military personnel to arrive on the ground, the ancient three of Europe appear caught in the middle in their policy, while the United States provides support without the risks of ground involvement.

Maybe our recent military ventures have finally reinforced the lessons of Vietnam in teaching us that military advisers are seldom the final answer. Unless we support a U.S. occupation of Libya—and I have registered my disagreement on that before—we should perhaps be grateful. The rebel effort in Libya will require an overhaul that could take quite some time, and the United States should continue to support it.

Resisting the temptation to send in advisers or more appears a rare show of foresight and restraint by the U.S. foreign policymakers. Qatar and Europe, however, appear eager to assume the mantle of T.E Lawrence. They will find it a heavy one to bear.

Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a former associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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