There are plenty of good arguments for imposing a no-fly zone in Libya. Without Libyan-government air strikes, the rebels might have a better chance of carving out permanent zones of resistance. Qaddafi has a long record of supporting anti-American terrorism, whether in the form of killing Americans in Europe during the Reagan administration or masterminding the Lockerbie bombing that took down a Pan Am 747 jumbo jet, killing 270 in the air and on the ground. In humanitarian terms, Libyans have been living an ungodly nightmare since Qaddafi’s coup in 1969, and it would be a fine and noble thing to lend them a hand to end their four-decade-long misery. The world would be a better and safer place without Qaddafi and his odious clan in power.
Unlike our military action under Ronald Reagan in 1986 (I visited the country on the 20th anniversary of that strike, only to happen upon an unexpected Lionel Richie commemorative concert), intervention now would find the proverbial “people” on our side. Many of our European allies would also favor some sort of military action. So supposedly would the majority of Libya’s neighbors. Even the Arab League is on record as supporting a no-fly zone imposed from the outside. Ostensibly, Arab countries would be supporting our efforts rather than undermining them, as they so often did in Iraq.
Former war critic Barack Obama is now president. He could bomb Qaddafi any time he wished, without incurring the vitriol that once met President Bush — and without having to make the effort Bush did to win congressional approval. Hollywood, the Democrats in Congress, and the mainstream media would all rally behind whatever the president wished. Most conservatives surely would support the president’s decision. The Cindy Sheehan crowd would either be silent or be silenced by the liberal community.
Unlike the 26 million–plus in Afghanistan and a like number in Iraq, there are only 7 million people in Libya, a country that poses none of the physical challenges of Afghanistan or even Iraq. The country is flat, with mostly clear weather, and is far more accessible than Afghanistan or Iraq — with its long Mediterranean coastline and plenty of American and NATO bases of operation in southern Europe. Many supporters apparently believe that we could redeem our messy efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq by a cleaner, short, and more popular intervention in Libya — akin more to a Serbian no-fatality operation than a hard slog in the Hindu Kush.
But all that said, using military force at this moment in Libya is a bad idea, and for a variety of reasons. I supported the Iraq war on the basis of the legitimate 23 writs adduced by both houses of Congress, in bipartisan fashion, which went well beyond trumped-up fears of massive arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. We had been in a de facto war with Saddam since 1991, and he was an enemy as sinister as Qaddafi but far more powerful. In some sense, America had been responsible for encouraging a popular revolt among Shiites and Kurds, and then allowing a defeated Saddam the means by which to put it down savagely. The mission was clearly articulated: to remove Saddam Hussein and foster a consensual government in his place. When we went into Iraq in 2003, less than 100 Americans had been killed since 2001 in Afghanistan, which was relatively quiet after two years of fighting. Indeed, the American fatality rate there would stay well below 100 per year on average during the first six years of the Afghan war and the first four years of simultaneous conflict in Iraq. That is not true today, as 499 Americans were killed just last year in Afghanistan, more than the cumulative fatality rate for the first seven years of the war.
True, we ran a record deficit in 2003 during the first year of the Iraq war, but it was $374 billion — in hindsight minuscule by the new standard of this year’s $1.6 trillion in red ink. Indeed, this year’s deficit alone is far more than the entire cost of the ongoing eight-year effort in Iraq.
In short, our nation is still engaged in fostering Iraqi democracy and warring against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, and it is fiscally insolvent. We have no idea who exactly the Libyan protesters are or what they represent. Most likely, they are brave idealists eager to rid themselves of their monstrous government, and they seem a world away from the al-Qaedist and Shiite theocrats who fought the American occupation troops in Iraq. But without Americans on the ground, we have little clue about their eventual aims and even less influence in guiding them in their replacement government.