Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Whither Libya

With the revolt going on on Libya against strongman Muammar el-Gadhafi, there has been considerable discussion about what, if anything, the US should do about it.

Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, whose bailiwick has always been foreign policy, recently issued the following statement on Libya:

Protesters and innocent people in Libya are being shot and killed. The tanks of Muammar Qadhafi’s supporters are firing at lightly-armed rebels and government planes are attacking insurgent positions.
Understandably, calls are growing for the United States to step in and do something to stop the bloodshed. The most popular option is imposing a no-fly zone, a supposedly low-cost, low-risk course of action.

Imposing a no-fly zone, requiring extensive bombing of Libyan military facilities, would be an act of war, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said. The United States should not, in my view, launch military intervention into yet another Muslim country, without thinking long and hard about the consequences and implications. Given Libya’s strategic importance, owing to its oil and its location, a misstep would be very costly.

Are we prepared, either alone or as part of an alliance, to see such military intervention through to the end? If the no-fly zone doesn’t stop the street-to-street fighting, are we prepared to escalate further, to put boots on the ground? Would that involve taking control of the country? Would we be obligated to stay until democracy is established?

Such tasks would further stress a military already stretched thin by long deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even if intervention could be limited to a no-fly zone, this is a complex, expensive military operation involving a large number of assets in the air, at sea, and in space. It would impose significant new costs on a budget already under extraordinary strain.

In other words, a major military action to support anti-Qadhafi forces is a commitment that would require, in my view, a formal declaration of war by the Congress of the United States, not just a tactical redeployment of some aircraft.

Moreover, our intervention may well not have the positive effects that supporters assume. There is a plenty of evidence instead that our intervention could create anti-American fervor within the country and the region. It would also allow Qadhafi to portray himself as a hero battling the infidels. Muslims worldwide could be inflamed anew by another U.S. strike against an Islamic country.

This is now a civil war. Intervening in such conflicts is fraught with unknowns and unintended consequences. Who is it we want to help? We really don’t know how the rebels are organized or what their plans are for the governance of the country. For that matter, we don’t know exactly who’s fighting for Qadhafi, aside from his sons—a lot of the armed forces have deserted him.

Self-determination has proved fundamental to the success of revolutions such as this, including Egypt and Tunisia. American help often taints those we assist. If the winners of this conflict are seen as shills of America, they will face repudiation by others in a post-Qadhafi Libya.

We also have to consider the impact of American military action on the reform fervor sweeping the rest of the region. It may well strengthen the hand of the autocrats who would accuse the protesters in their country of serving outside interests or attempting to provoke American intervention.

Moreover, we’ve had experience in using the U.S. military on a humanitarian mission in the midst of a civil war—it was to stop warlords, armed with little more than Jeeps and machine guns, from stealing food aid for starving people in Somalia in 1993. It ended in disaster, a score of young Americans lost their lives, and Al Qaeda took inspiration from the perceived American weakness.

Clearly, the United States should do what it can to provide humanitarian assistance of food, shelter and medical care to those affected by the fighting in Libya, and ratchet up sanctions and other diplomatic pressure on the regime. We should work with allies on potential multi-lateral responses.

And we should not hesitate to use military force when it is necessary and our objectives are clear. But given our experience in Somalia, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, the burden of proof lies on those calling for military intervention to demonstrate that doing so would be in the United States’ national interest.
Gary Welsh, who runs the excellent blog at Advance Indiana, agrees with Lugar. Unfortunately, as has been much more often of late, I do not.

Via his Twitter feed, Senator Lugar elaborates that we need to know more about the Libyan rebels before becoming involved.  A fair point, I think.

Nevertheless, defense and foreign policy are not "optional" for a legitimate government, either under the US Constitution or under the theoretical social contract.  While one may argue, rightly or wrongly, that government has many functions, defense and foreign policy are the only services government can provide that the people cannot provide for themselves.

Moreover, crises of foreign policy are more likely to occur not when a government is strong and more able to handle them, but is perceived as weak and less able to handle them.  Notice that Rome was generally not attacked by outsiders under strong emperors like Augustus and Vespasian, but weak emperors like Valens and Honorius.  Which means that government much retain the will and capability to respond even in the worst of times. 

That is what we have in Libya.  An opportunity to remove someone who has been a major thorn in the US side for some four decades. A murderous, tyrannical dictator. While one may legitimately argue that Hosni Mubarak in neighboring Egypt was a murderous, tyrannical dictator we supported, the fact remains that not all murderous, tyrannical dictators are created equal.  When push came to shove -- no pun intended -- Mubarak refused to murder his countrymen in droves to stay in power.  Gadhafi is the opposite, not only quite happy to murder thousands of his own countrymen to stay in power, but willing to use foreign mercenaries from Chad to achieve that end. He does not care about international condemnation or "soft power" or economic sanctions or the like.  The worst dictators usually do not.

Senator Lugar may be right in that we cannot afford a war in Libya in monetary terms, but even accepting that as true for argument's sake, I would put forth that we cannot afford to stay out of Libya.

We will have to pay for the events in Libya, one way or another. If Gadhafi stays in power, it would set the Middle East back decades in the search for responsible representative government.  If the US cannot afford a war in Libya now, it certainly cannot afford the later costs of not intervening in that war.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  We must find a way to pay that ounce now, because the pound later will be much, much more expensive.

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