The U.S has begun an undeclared war in Libya. It has gone to war in spite of the privately-expressed concerns of its Secretary of Defense. And it’s not clear what exactly it hopes to achieve by its actions.
President Obama has said that “Qaddafi needs to go.” But he has stopped short of saying that the U.S. intends to remove him. The plan seems to be to let Britain and France take the lead once a no-fly zone has been established. Obama, after all, has no desire to get to commit the U.S. indefinitely to combat operations in yet another Muslim country—not when the country is already in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Obama has right on his side in at least one sense. The rebels who are fighting to overthrow Qaddafi deserve our support—even as we sit on the sidelines of similar struggles in Yemen and Bahrain. The U.S. support of strongmen like Qaddafi and Mubarak was wrong, and in some ways has backfired against us. It is high time the U.S. sides with the people against their oppressors.
But there is a danger in imagining we can simply and surgically remove someone like Qaddafi, as our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught us. By becoming involved in Libya, we are committing ourselves to the ousting Qaddafi, whatever we may say. The line between establishing a no-fly zone and putting boots on the ground is not that clear. Controlling a country’s airspace means bombing its air defenses, as well as acquiring a stake in the success of military operations on the ground. If Qaddafi hangs on—or if things go badly for the British and French forces—the U.S. will have to face either committing more of our own forces or suffering a painful defeat.
This is Colin Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn rule” of foreign policy: you break it, you own it. It is as true of Libya as it was of Iraq. As Peggy Noonan argued last week, it’s easier to start a war than to end one. Once the U.S. becomes involved, there are always compelling reasons for it to stay involved. It becomes responsible for how the war turns out, and has to live with the consequences.
In Afghanistan, America cannot leave because it is the 9/11 place, the place that helped 9/11 to happen. America cannot leave because, as the iconic Time cover had it, the Taliban will cut off women’s noses and brutalize them in other ways. America cannot leave because al Qaeda will return, fill the vacuum left by our departure, and create a new terror state. America cannot leave because of turbulent, dangerous Pakistan. America cannot leave because from the day we arrived, we invested blood and treasure, and it cannot have been in vain. America can never leave because American troops always bring their kindness and constructiveness with them, and their rule of law. Innocent people will be defenseless without them.
That raises the question of how we plan to ensure that things turn out well in Libya. And we don’t seem to have any more of a plan than we did when we entered Iraq. That was Secretary of Defense Gates’ concern: what exactly do we hope to achieve and how do we plan to achieve it?
If we are serious about intervening on the side of democracy in Libya, it will mean doing more—a lot more—than just controlling the country’s airspace. As Kevin Williamson writes, “If the experience of the last ten years has taught us anything, it should be this: we can bomb our enemies into the Stone Age, but we cannot bomb them into the 21st century.”
Photo credit: Patrick André Perron