It’s strange to see people who were adamantly against the Iraq and/or Afghanistan wars decry the Obama Administration’s stance towards the uprisings in the Middle East, particularly when it comes to Libya and the violence that’s broken out over the last couple of weeks. There’s been calls for operations such as a no fly zone to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from attacking rebel forces and civilians in Libya, and while I’m not disputing that some form of intervention is a good idea, US military operations would be a bad idea, setting a further bad precedent for the country already embroiled in two wars across the world.
While the idea of military intervention as a tool to be used by an administration is one that has some merit, what first appears to be a fairly simple idea turns out to be a very difficult one to implement: to do so would be tantamount to a declaration of war on Libya. While the United States (and more importantly, along with United Nations peacekeeping forces) has upheld no-fly zones over countries such as Bosnia and Iraq in recent military history, Libya presents a far more challenging mission. Where Bosnia didn’t have an extensive anti-aircraft network, and where Iraq had just been invaded, Libya has invested quite a bit of money in an organized military and defense force, one that would have to be dismantled and neutralized prior to the deployment of regular flights over the country.
This isn’t an easy step, because it would require a number of different combat elements to undertake: dedicated support teams for the aircraft, up to date and accurate intelligence on the Libyan defenses, and the forces (air and ground, most likely) to take down their targets. This would have to happen while the United States is committed to two other combat missions, in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which take a serious amount of funding, personnel and equipment to keep going. Siphoning off planes and resources from either of those two locations would have an adverse impact on the ongoing operations over there (most likely hitting Afghanistan more heavily), which in turn causes long-term problems for the people on the ground in completing their own objectives.
This happens in an environment where the country has been increasingly war-weary, having seen the impact that war has on the country, to say the least of what’s happened overseas. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower had sought to reduce the country’s role in the world by not utilizing the U.S. armed forces as a sort of policeman for stopping communism, seeking to help prop up governments (for good or bad) in their own footprints. There are some practical lessons to be learned here, particularly the fiscal one, which sought to move the U.S.’s foreign policy to one that avoided costly wars continually after Korea, although there’s a bit of a mixed record here. Transplanted into the present day, and pushing for an armed response to the Libyan conflict might bring about some short-term gains, but it could be counter-intuitive in longer strategic goals for the region, and it would represent a costly endeavor.
The U.S. would face reduced effectiveness of countering the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, because of the reduced personnel and air cover that they already enjoy, as forces are redeployed to the North African country, where a continual military engagement would quickly wear down equipment and personnel, if the experiences of Iraq and Bosnia are anything to go by, and that’s with some of the major problems already taken care of. Landing ground forces in Libya would essentially be a third invasion of the country, with casualties expected as the U.S. jumps in the middle of a civil war, which can turn problematic when we already have a poor track record of understanding local culture, politics and strategy.
Furthermore, we would need to fully understand the larger strategic aims for the country. If the goal is simply to save lives, there alternatives, and if the goal is full on regime change, there would need to be a fully committed US (and most likely, UN) mission to undertake that, something that most likely won’t sit well, not only with the American public (in the long term) or the European Union, which is already pulling away from coalition duties in Afghanistan and Iraq. A no-fly zone would most likely help to accomplish the first goal, but not the second, but it would require a significant military effort to undertake, an effort that will likely outstrip the direct benefit to the U.S. strategic goals for the region.
Ultimately, there is no easy answer to what will happen in Libya, but in all likelihood, military options, while on the table, won’t be considered unless there is significant participation from European allies, something that I don’t see happening any time in the near future, as they largely have their own internal issues to consider. It’s a real shame, because America and its allies have come out of the last nine years with one of the most experienced and well equipped military forces than at any point in recent times. However, if the will and means aren’t in place for a long-term military engagement, it’s something that probably won’t, or shouldn’t happen. At the same time, if those calling for action in Libya already don’t have the will or desire to support the goals that have been put into place in the Middle East already, it strikes me that there is some real evaluation required of the country and its desire to wage war. We all must live with the consequences of what we reap.