Getting real about Libya

American national interest should be of primary interest when debating Libyan intervention.

By Adam Ahmad

On the anniversary of the Second Gulf War, the United States elbowed its way into yet another conflict in the Muslim world. Proponents of intervention in Libya argue that the U.S. possesses not only the military capability to balance the conflict between Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces and the rebels, but that it has a moral imperative to do so as well. They claim that the United States cannot sit idly by and watch a tyrannical dictator “slaughter” his own citizens and commit “genocide” against those calling for freedom. They argue also that it is paramount that the West be on the right side of history in this struggle in order to improve its standing in the Middle East and in North Africa.

This argument may remind some of the similar reasoning that resonated throughout Washington during the run-up to the second war with Iraq in 2003. Liberal interventionists and hawkish foreign policy wonks insisted that the United States was endowed with the moral impetus to remove Saddam Hussein and liberate the Iraqi people. Not only that, but the operation would be swift and easy because the U.S. had the superior military capability to make it so. Another similarity between the conflict in Iraq and the current Libyan war is the lack of coherent goals for the future of the country. With the absence of tangible goals and piecemeal international support, the United States should refrain from deeper military involvement in the Libyan Civil War or run the risk of shouldering the lion’s share of the burden in a potentially protracted conflict.

The first problem the United States faces in Libya is the combination of lofty ambitions and modest military means. Currently, the U.S. has stated that its goals are to ensure the survival of Libyan civilians and anti-government opposition and secondly, to assist in the ousting of Col. Qaddafi. It has been agreed by NATO and the Arab League that the best way to achieve the first goal is to institute a no-fly zone over Libya. A no-fly zone, it is argued, would impede the use of air power against civilians and rebels and would greatly balance the terms of future engagements between pro and anti-government forces. However, a no-fly zone, in actuality, will do little to accomplish this. Col. Qaddafi’s forces are ground-based, consisting of tanks and a mixture of armed mercenaries and loyalist soldiers. These are the forces doing the killing. While a no-fly zone will minimize casualties, it doesn’t stop the bulk of the threat posed to the civilians and rebels.

The second and loftier goal is regime change by forcing Col. Qaddafi out of power. Currently, the only way to achieve this is to arm the rebels in the hope that they stand a better chance against the pro-government forces. This scenario is dangerously similar to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Arming tribes that we know little to nothing about would more than likely spark another civil war within Libya. “Rebels” are not simply comprised of a monolithic tribe, but represent a cross-section of all Libyan peoples. Arming them with hopes to topple Qaddafi would only make them more eager to fight an internecine war once the dictator has been vanquished. Similarly, there is no guarantee that a pro-American group will emerge to assume power in the aftermath. Another problem with this approach is that there is no guarantee that it would work and, more importantly, it is a minimalist strategy at best. Regime change requires foreign boots on the ground with superior military capabilities to roll back pro-government forces to Tripoli. This is an option the U.S. refuses to undertake, and rightly so. However, without willingness to do what is necessary, how on earth does the U.S. plan on achieving its ambiguous goals?

One could argue that the reason why there are no clearly defined goals or means of achieving them in the first place is because there simply is no vital U.S. interest worth fighting and dying for in Libya. The current civil war in North Africa is more of an interest to European countries such as Ireland, Italy, France, and Britain—the consumers of Libyan oil. Similarly, Egypt’s military receives $1.6 billion annually to maintain an adequate military force. Cairo should be playing a larger role in the Libyan theater. Instead of the U.S. shouldering the burden of this conflict, why not pass the buck and allow the Europeans and other Arab states to assume their geo-strategic responsibilities? Washington could still provide logistical and intelligence support to our allies in this project. However, since America is already overstretched in two wars in the periphery, a third war would further compromise our vital national interests.

The international community is right to intervene in the Libyan conflict. However, the argument that the U.S. must enter to strengthen its image in the Arab world does not hold water. Regardless of what some may think, the Arab world still does not want U.S. or NATO forces in the Middle East, nor do they want to be perceived as being beholden to Washington. Moreover, for those howling that U.S. military intervention is morally just, try applying some of that morality to our own country. Those tomahawk missiles cost a hefty sum at a time when the U.S. is significantly cash strapped. During the Cold War, George Kennan advocated for a moratorium on military intervention unless it was needed to protect essential American interests. It would be wise for current U.S. policymakers to learn from history and follow suit.

Adam Ahmad is a graduate student in international relations.