Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Gadson Review's Take on Libya


After weeks of trying to decide what to do, President Obama has gone to war. He has backed a “no-fly zone” and has called Gadhafi a tyrant whom he cannot sit idly by and allow to murder innocent civilians. As of now, French and British planes are primarily the ones dropping bombs on Libya to get government forces to stop attacking rebel strongholds. This has all been done with Obama’s backing.

Outside intervention strikes me as quite risky. First, there is the possibility that Gadhafi will hang onto power. The US and its allies may well decide not to launch a ground invasion to minimize casualties. Although Gadhafi would have to stop attacking the rebels, he might be able to negotiate a cease-fire and some kind of arrangement that allows him to stay on as leader. Western interventions do not always cause dictators to leave office. Slobodan Milosevic holding onto power in Serbia is a good example of that. If this happens, the West will be seen to have failed, and revolutionaries in the Middle East will wonder if the West will actually be able to help them if they revolt. Even worse, western leaders will have to live with the fact that bombing caused civilian casualties.

Perhaps intervening will even make it more likely for Gadhafi to remain in power. He will be able to claim that the rebels are pawns of meddling foreigners and turn public opinion among those on the sidelines against the rebels.

Second, ousting Gadhafi could be longer and harder than expected. The allies might have to launch a ground invasion, which would entail a substantial cost both in money and lives. This comes at a time when western nations’ budgets are stretched too thin as is, and when they have lost some appetite for foreign adventures because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ultimate end game most observers envision is a stable democracy. If Iraq is any guide, that will take some time.

Lastly, there could be a power vacuum once Gadhafi is gone. All those who have been shut out for so long will want a chance to hold power, and may resort to violence to get it. This would lead to a civil war that would arguably be worse than allowing even someone as bad as Gadhafi to stay in power.

In any of these scenarios, Obama will gain nothing politically. Conservatives who wanted Obama to intervene will fault him for not “winning” the war. Humanitarian liberals will fault him for not stopping the bloodshed. Budget hawks will accuse him of digging a bigger hole for US finances with foreign adventurism. Voters of all stripes may well feel that he went into war without an exit strategy, something Senator Obama faulted President Bush for in Iraq.

Obama will be criticized for letting the French and British take the lead in the operation. Some conservatives will say he is allowing foreigners to be the ones standing up for liberty and freedom while the US stands meekly at the side. He will be portrayed as weak and indecisive. In the final analysis though, perhaps Obama was right to allow the Europeans such a prominent role.

Right now, the US is busy fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both of these are critical to US national security and international standing. If the US can get Iraq and Afghanistan right, it will have made two viable democracies in the Middle East which fight Islamic extremism and ally with the US. By contrast, failing in those two countries would not only put trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to waste, it would cause the rest of the world to truly question American power. It would make friends and allies immediately more skeptical of future US efforts at nation-building and democracy promotion. Simply put, the US cannot afford to be the world’s sole policeman. Even a superpower can benefit from having friends pitch in.

It is difficult to say how Libya will turn out in the end. It is easy to say however, that potential costs are great.

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