I haven’t written about the now under way U.S. military action in Libya, mostly because lots of other people are more expert on this topic than I. But for the purpose of exposing my biases at the start of this post, I’ll lay my cards on the table: I am against it. I assume the military phase will be devastating for the regime, and hope that the overall effort goes as well as is possible, but I think it’s a mistake for the U.S. to expend significant economic, human, or moral resources in a military attempt to control the evolution of the conflict in Libya.
I understand the humanitarian impulse to help the underdog, but we have finite resources, and cannot hold ourselves responsible for the political freedom of every human being on Earth. As many others have said, the obvious problem with this action is that we must set the pretty gauzy-sounding benefits of influencing public opinion in the Middle East, avenging ourselves for the Pan Am bombing, possibly improving the lives of people in Libya and so forth, against the many ways that this could plausibly turn into a much more expensive proposition than is currently anticipated — and not only in terms of money. (It also seems very far from clear that in this case the underdogs are people who, once in power, would be materially better than the current government for Libyans, Americans, or just about anybody else.)
What seems so striking to me, though, from the perspective of being in Paris and London, is the default belief among so many in the U.S. that America needs to “be a leader” on this. I think that over time, whatever our tactical decision with respect to this particular crisis, we need very much not to be a leader in this sense. We can’t afford it.
The discussions that I read from the U.S. take American military predominance as a fact of nature. There are (as I understand it) unique U.S. military assets that are important to this specific operation, but that is an outcome of prior European strategies that can, and should, be changed. From a longer-term perspective, it is entirely natural that Europeans should be responsible for whatever external military action is taken in a place like Libya.
This is for at least two reasons.
First, while it’s easy to use anecdotes to paint an impressionistic picture of European nations as a bunch of small countries populated by elderly people who have given up on having real armies, the facts on the ground are different. Britain and France are taking the lead on Libya. They are, in fact, major countries, with huge populations, economies, and militaries. Together, the UK and France have a population approximately equal to the sum of those of California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. They have a combined GDP (which was partly designed to be a measure of traditional war-fighting potential) that is about one-third the size of America’s. The UK has the world’s third-largest military budget, and France the fourth-largest.
Second, they are a lot closer to Libya. Tripoli is about the same distance from Marseille as Mexico City is from Dallas, or as Miami is from Memphis. Libya is on Europe’s doorstep, but is almost 5,000 miles from Washington, D.C. Distance still matters a lot for physical force projection. This also means that there are much more practical national-security implications for Europe than for America, ranging from the potential for massive refugee waves to direct or terrorist strikes.
If, over time, Europe can’t or won’t pursue missions like the current effort in Libya, then either they’re not worth doing, or the U.S. must carry the entire burden of policing the world on its own. If we were ever able to do that, we can’t any more.
The central geostrategic fact of our era has nothing to do with Middle Eastern terrorism — it is the economic rise of the Asian heartland. With enormous and stressful struggle, America has been successful in roughly maintaining its share of world GDP for the past several decades in the face of this. Europe and Japan have been ceding share to the rest of the world. Considered in isolation, the relative power of the U.S. has not been declining — but that of our closest allies has been. Countries that do not share as much of our culture and values are increasingly ascendant. China no more wants American “leadership” than did the Soviet Union.
This will make it ever-harder for the U.S. to control events. Yes, we “spend more on our military than all other major powers combined.” But, depending on how you measure it, the U.S. has about 20–25 percent of world GDP. In the long-run, we cannot win an arms race with the whole rest of the planet.
I believe that the sucker play in this situation is to adopt an ever more imperial attitude, dig in, and attempt to use unilateral military force to protect our existing position. We would bankrupt ourselves trying to freeze history in place. This is probably what most powers in history would do in our situation. But that doesn’t mean we’re fated to make this mistake. If there’s such a thing as an American genius for dealing with the world, a big part of it is marrying real belief in high ideals with a kind of unsentimental, almost ruthless, practicality. We need that now.
Even our current level of military expenditures could be matched over time by a sufficiently aggressive collation, and if we are trying to project power very far from our shores, adversaries would not have to come close to matching it in order to defeat us. The saying “no land wars in Asia” is there for a reason. And we are unlikely to maintain our current spending levels as a percentage of GDP. America is deeply in debt, and has an enormous structural deficit. We are in need of severe budget reform, which primarily means entitlement reform, but will very likely require reductions in military expenditures. These cannot be made imprudently. Reducing expenditures prudently means reducing commitments. Consider that, though it is losing global share, Europe has a larger population and economy than does America. We must, in our own self-interest, place Europeans (and Japanese, Koreans, and others) in the position of defending their own interests to a much greater degree than they do today. We need real allies.
The quid pro quo is that you don’t order allies around, you work with them, and they get say. This will create risks, and some degree of loss of control, versus the case of perpetual U.S. global military dominance. But that dominance will not persist indefinitely anyway. Wishing it weren’t so won’t change it.