Credit Where Credit is Due: We Haven’t Screwed Up Libya (yet?)
**Update** I have noticed that there is still a good bit of traffic to this post, but as of mid-April, it clearly no longer applies. We’ve stuck our noses into Libya, and the results will be predictably terrible. If you’re still interested in my early-March views, please, read on:
If there is one good thing about the current administration that stands out, it’s that it seems to have a decidedly less itchy trigger finger than the one that preceded it.
Granted, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown no signs of abatement, the president reversed his course on military tribunals at Guantanamo, and no credible case has been made regarding what counts as the “national interest” when it comes to foreign wars. However, when faced with unrest in Egypt, Bahrain, and especially Libya – three undeniably non-democratic, non-Western states – Obama did not strap on his spurs and mount up for a wild west conquest out in the Maghreb.
The problems are abundant as they are obvious. Our military is overcomitted in the region already. We cannot afford the wars we are already fighting, much less add another. Overexpenditure of military resources abroad undercuts safety at home. Blowback is not a meteorological phenomenon.
But even beyond the obvious problems, there is no case to be made for intervention in Libya. I believe Richard Haass makes a good point in this Wall Street Journal column:
It is one thing to acknowledge Moammar Gadhafi as a ruthless despot, which he has demonstrated himself to be. But doing so does not establish the democratic bona fides of those who oppose him. And even if some of those opposing him are genuine democrats, there is no reason to assume that helping to remove the regime would result in the ascendancy of such people.
To the contrary. Removing Gadhafi and those around him could easily set in motion a chain of events in which a different strongman, with the backing of a different tribe, took over. Or it could create a situation in which radical Islamists gain the upper hand. Either way, significant areas of the country would be beyond any government control, creating vacuums exploitable by al Qaeda and similar groups.
That should sound familiar. The United States has a history of taking sides in the third world, and backing it up with arms. The theory behind propping up a pet dictator seems to have been something along the lines of “yeah, he’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole.” Haass himself points to the example of the United States arming Afghanistan against the Soviets, only to have those arms turned back on the United States when it involved itself in the country some years later.
We have also armed Iran, we have armed Egypt to the tune of $34 billion, we have armed Saudi Arabia (the next candidate for revolution?), we have sent billions worth of combat aircraft to Pakistan, and the list goes on and on. Much of the total represents arms transfers rather than simply arms sales, which means that much of this is coming unfiltered from the taxpayer.
How about we go ahead and avoid arming Libya too?
And even making the long-shot assumption that our military aid would help the country democratize, we have to recognize that the interest that the United States has in Libya is peripheral at best. Does it bother me that people are dying? Yes. But they are people who believe in their revolution and stand to immediately and materially gain from it. None of that applies to American servicemen or the American taxpayer.
Bill Clinton famously said that his greatest regret was not intervening in Rwanda in the mid-1990s. Even accounting for the size of the genocide, that’s an easy regret to have, because there was no way of knowing whether intervention would have prevented the problem, what the death toll would have been, what the attitude of the Rwandans would have been, or what the whole thing would have cost in both money and national security.
More likely than not, a Rwandan excursion would have blown up in our faces, with ballooning costs, high death rates for both sides, high civilian casualties, and international uproar. Remember when we assumed we’d be out of Iraq within months, and that they’d welcome us with open arms?
Regretting following the path of non-intervention is akin to regretting that you didn’t win the lottery because you declined to purchase a ticket. Of course, no thought is given to whether your ticket would have been the winner.
The United States is right to have stayed out of Libya this long. I only hope we can stay the course for as long as it takes.