Why the U.S. must not intervene in Libya

March 12, 2011 - 0:0

The urge to intervene around the world may truly have become hardwired into the American psyche. How else to explain the seriousness with which some in Washington are suggesting that the United States take sides in the unfolding civil war in Libya?

The U.S. is fighting two wars in Muslim countries. Since the results have included thousands of dead Americans, a near-bankrupt treasury and a surge in anti-Americanism in the world's most volatile region, launching a third war might seem unwise. Intervening in Libya would require the US to take sides in a highly obscure conflict. Any group the U.S. helps bring to power would be heavily tainted, and Americans would have to defend it in an explosive environment.
And few people in the Middle East, or anywhere else, would believe that the U.S. had intervened in an oil-rich Arab state without being interested in securing its oil.
Intervention in Libya has all the makings of another Middle East quagmire. The urge to intervene there, however, is not driven solely by factors related to Libya. Sure, there is genuine outrage at the brutality Muammar Gaddafi is inflicting on his people. No doubt, some American strategists have their eyes on Libyan oil, and others are looking for a new platform for U.S. power in the Middle East. But beneath it all is the deep belief that when there is trouble in Libya – or Liberia or Lesotho or Laos or Lithuania – the United States needs to take a decisive stand and push to impose the solution it finds best.
The reasoning is simple, and deeply rooted in American history. The world is a dangerous place, it needs to be managed, and the United States is called to do the managing.
This is the view that led Theodore Roosevelt to assert that submitting to America's will was ""the prerequisite condition to the moral and material advance of the people who dwell in the darker corners of the earth"". It convinced Woodrow Wilson that the U.S. needed to dominate Latin Americans so it could ""teach them to elect good men"". It propelled Dwight Eisenhower to overthrow democratic governments in Guatemala, ultimately plunging into brutal dictatorship. More recently, it pulled Jimmy Carter into Afghanistan and George W Bush into Iraq, with devastating consequences for American power and security.
The effect of these operations on America's fiscal health has been equally cataclysmic. Costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have reached one trillion dollars. That is two thirds of America's current budget deficit.
Despite all of this, there are still interventionists who insist that this time, the U.S. can get it right. ""It's hard to imagine any new government growing out of this opposition that is worse than Gaddafi,"" Senator Joseph Lieberman has blithely asserted. Gaddafi controlled every inch of Libyan territory, deftly balanced tribal and sectarian interests, and administered a reasonably effective state. Whether a new regime would be able to do any of those things is far from certain. Would the U.S. stepping in to ""help"", do so?
Senator John Kerry has suggested that American warplanes ""crater the airports"" in Tripoli and other government-held cities – a nice way of saying that the U.S. should bomb Libya: an act of war. Senator John McCain observed that decreeing a no-fly zone over Libya would be a good way to ""send a signal to Gaddafi"". Perhaps it would be as effective as the signal the U.S. sent Saddam Hussein, who survived in office for 12 years after the Americans imposed two no-fly zones over his country.
The no-fly zone is a seductive option, but only to those who do not reflect on its complexity. It would require a major commitment of air power, and since at least some missile launchers will be located in populated areas, American bombs would almost certainly kill Libyan civilians. And given the balance of power in Libya, where ragtag rebels are outgunned by the regime's better organized troops and mercenaries, even sustained bombardment might not dislodge the tyrant. What would the U.S. do then? Escalate until he is forced to flee, using ground troops if necessary?
Perhaps the appeal of the no-fly option is that it would give testosterone-driven politicians in Washington a way to pretend they are doing something meaningful to defend heroic rebels far away. Yet, the only real way to defeat Gaddafi quickly is by a land invasion, and even today's interventionists are unwilling – yet – to call for such madness. Invasion would resolve a short-term problem, but Libyans would presumably rebel against American occupation, just as Iraqis and Afghans have. The presence of American troops in Libya would be a magnet for every jihadist fighter in the world. An invasion might prevent or head off a civil war, but probably trap American forces into fighting another long-term insurgency.
Foreign interventions always end badly. They can sometimes be justified on the grounds that not intervening would produce even worse results, but such cases are rare. Libya is not one of them. No vital American interest is at stake there. In fact, as past interventions have shown, the outcome is likely to undermine the global stability on which the U.S. depends.
(Source: Guardian.co.uk)