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.
Barack Obama has proven that he is no Bush, who could make unpopular but necessary decisions like the 2007 surge that saved Iraq but lost him what little domestic support he still retained. Obama, in contrast, is as likely as not to back out of Libya should things go wrong. It is worth noting that he only voiced support for Qaddafi’s removal two weeks ago, when he sensed that popular protests would almost surely lead to regime change. Obama is about as certain that Qaddafi must go, and go now, as he was that Guantanamo most certainly would be closed more than 14 months ago. John Kerry now supports a proposed no-fly zone in the same fashion that he once supported the Iraq war; and he will oppose a Libya no-fly zone the nanosecond it becomes unexpectedly difficult and 51 percent of the citizenry oppose the effort — as he did with Iraq during the rise of the Iraqi insurgency and the American election cycle of 2004.
The Obama administration has so far taken no consistent policy toward the unrest spreading through the Middle East. We have both supported and damned the Egyptian and Tunisian autocracies. A reset diplomacy of not being George Bush has translated into a sort of a multicultural gobbledy-gook in which we are not supposed to meddle or impose our views on other countries, but somehow feel also that human rights are sorta eternal and universal values that foreigners sorta would be better off embracing.
As we contemplate action against Libya, the Obama administration has not in any logical or coherent fashion explained why, where, when, and how the United States should support popular unrest. Mubarak was and was not a dictator, who had to go yesterday, today, tomorrow — and stay on for the transition. We should not meddle in the internal affairs of Iran by supporting dissidents in the streets, but we should meddle in the internal affairs of Egypt by encouraging dissidents in the streets.
Do we express support for regime change in a Middle Eastern country when protesters pour into the streets, or only when such protesters seem to be on the edge of winning? By what criteria is Mubarak worse than Ahmadinejad or Assad? Will those who might replace King Abdullah in Jordan be better or worse? Is the Saudi autocracy less harsh to its own than the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, or is it Saudi Arabia’s unique oil status that earned its present exemption from American pressure? And as we contemplate moving into Libya, are we opposed to or supportive of the ongoing Saudi incursion into Bahrain to stamp out dissidents there? Are the Saudis acting as good allies who are protecting Western petroleum interests and the contractual integrity of U.S. military installations, or as reactionary forces that are denying the people a voice in their own affairs? And is a new Egypt going to be more tolerant of religious minorities than Mubarak’s Egypt? No one in Washington seems to be cognizant that those in power in Iran, Syria, and Libya are much worse than the dictators and kings in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf — nor does anyone seem aware that, at least for now, popular plebiscites in the Middle East without constitutional guarantees and institutionalized human rights (and a large American ground presence to help draft and enforce a new constitution) would translate into more, not less, illiberal government.
Nor do we have a systematic plan of action in Libya: Is the idea that we will impose a no-fly zone in the air, but would do nothing to stop an exposed column of Qaddafi’s tanks from streaming along below to slaughter outmanned insurgents? What if Qaddafi stays in power — are we once again to monitor a despot’s skies for twelve years, as our once-loud European allies, lured by oil, tire and peel off? And if the rebels win, do we leave, or do we continue such a presence until the winners prove themselves humane rather than perpetuators of the cycle of violence? These questions do not pose insurmountable problems, but they surely will if they are never raised, much less contemplated by an administration one of whose officials just last week announced that the Libyan rebels would probably lose, while another was saying that the Pentagon was “stupid” in its pre-trial confinement of Bradley Manning, who may have leaked 250,000 confidential State Department cables and endangered hundreds of lives.
By all means let President Obama organize sanctions and embargoes, and send humanitarian aid to the suffering in Libya. But direct military intervention in Libya is a noble idea that this country, at this moment of incoherence and as it is currently led, has no business embracing.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.