James C. Banks

Libya: The New Front

In Uncategorized on March 21, 2011 at 1:59 am

It is now pointless to argue whether we should or should not interfere in Libya, because—though our involvement in Libya is only modest at this time—we have. The Libyan conflict has very little to do with our national interest. As much as America hates Muommar Ghadafi, there is minimal evidence that whoever replaces him would be any better. Yes, Ghadafi has supported and carried out terrorist attacks on the United States; but it is less likely that he will do so in the future than radical Islamists, should they take power, which might happen should he be overthrown. Those of us who were opposed to military intervention (myself included) can still provide thoughts on how to proceed, now that we can’t turn back time.

By interfering in Libya, we have opened up the potential for putting boots on the ground, though this does not have to happen. Whether or not we do so depends on how specifically the mission is defined and it is for this reason that I advocate creating a very low bar for success. We probably should have done this in Afghanistan also—we could have withdrawn from Afghanistan after the battle of Tora Bora claiming to have defeated the Al Qaeda and, therefore, emerged victorious; this is no longer an option in Afghanistan, but we can still set a low bar in Libya.

The president should announce that his only intention, for the moment, is to turn back Muommar Ghadafi’s assault on Benghazi and, once this has been done, he will allow the Libyans to fight it out. The worst bar for success that could be set would be the removal of Ghadafi from power; I do not think that such an outcome is impossible, but I do think that it will be much harder to achieve than a no-fly zone. Already, the coalition is going beyond its original goal of establishing a no-fly zone by striking ground targets.

Whether these actions are the gateway drug to having to oust Ghadafi and then help rebuild so as to avoid a refugee crisis to Egypt and Italy is unclear. Admiral Mullen seems to think that ousting Ghadafi will not be necessary; France seems to disagree. France and Britain have been much more cavalier in the intervention than has the United States, possibly because instability in Libya could spill over into Europe and also possibly as an act of atonement after having extended a hand of friendship to Ghadafi during the last decade. (I should note that the United States took on Ghadafi as an ally, but never offered serious friendship.) 

If France and Britain want to perform acts of contrition, they have every reason to. But if this means marching into Tripoli, putting Ghadafi on trial and then mediating the nation-building process to make sure another crisis doesn’t erupt, then the United States should take no more than a supportive role, kind of like a cheerleading squad. So far, I have heard several individuals argue that the United States ought to be more involved because “we can’t let France beat us.” Actually, I’m glad to let France and Britain take the lead. After all, they are the ones whose interests are more directly at stake.

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