Wednesday, March 23, 2011

There Was No Right Decision on Libya

If all you have is a hammer -- which in this case is the world's biggest military -- then every problem ultimately resembles a nail.
I mentioned in passing yesterday that I had reluctantly come around to supporting the no-fly zone over Libya because, as belated as the action may be, it is in the service of a larger cause -- the democratic transformation of the Arab world, warts and all as well as risks and all -- as well as putting an end to a humanitarian crisis.

This is not to say that the U.S. and NATO should get its back up every time an autocrat pushes back against regime change. Egypt, where the transition to democracy appears to be on course, is a lesson in that regard. But Libya is a different kettle of fish and Moammar el-Qaddafi's wholesale slaughter of his own people begged a response.

Cynics will point out the there are humanitarian crises in the Sudan and Somalia and no one is advocating no-fly zones over them, let alone any kind of military intervention. True enough, but those nations may as well be on the dark side of the Moon. (Pun intended.) Then there was the formulaic tut-tutting over crackdowns in Bahrain and Yemen, but the former is a U.S. ally and the latter . . . a what?

"Mission creep," which despite vows from President Obama on down that the U.S. will cede the lead role no-fly zone role in days and not let it drag on for weeks, should be the taxpayers' biggest concern about Libya, and not just because the Pentagon will have to ask for a supplementary appropriation if the U.S.'s involvement drags on.

While Qaddafi's Air Force has been effectively crippled, he doesn't need it to continue his offensive against poorly armed and ill disciplined pro-democracy rebels, and the temptation to broaden Operation Odyssey Dawn into a ground operation would be mission creep at its creepiest. How, for example, are aerial NATO forces going to coordinate coordinate tactics with rebel groups without having a ground presence?

Despite assertions that the goal is not to remove the strongman ( the U.N. resolution calls for no such thing), there will be pressure to finish the job, which is to say regime change, to avoid a protracted civil war.

This pressure already is coming from the usual suspects: The neocon brain trust that for all intents and purposes forced George Bush to invade Iraq on false pretensions, is collectively amnesic about the fiasco it helped create, and is now beating the loudest war drum over Libya. Meanwhile, the first cracks are beginning to appear in the coalition after only three days over what should happen next.

Public opinion polls show that support for the U.S.'s involvement is strong, but it typically is early in military campaigns. But people aren't being asked a much larger question: Is military might the U.S.'s only solution to international crises? And there is no anti-war movement to speak of to raise the issue.

As my friend Will Bunch notes in an essay from which I pulled the quote atop this post, Afghanistan at first resembled a nail. That's how the oil-rich Persian Gulf looked to George Bush and Dick Cheney, and inevitably that's how Libya has come to look.

I join Will in praying for the safety of our pilots and a transition to democracy in yet another Arab nation. But the U.S. needs a bigger tool kit because just owning a hammer isn't enough to fix everything.
Photograph by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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