Foreign Policy

Stay Out of Libya

The case against military intervention


The civil war in Libya was barely underway before some American politicians were insisting the United States crash the party. We have been fighting in Afghanistan for nine years and Iraq for eight, but the typical Washington hawk views wars the way Hugh Hefner views buxom blondes: You can never have too many.

The current craze is for a no-fly zone to help remove Moammar Gadhafi. It's been endorsed by Republicans John McCain, Newt Gingrich, and Tim Pawlenty, as well as Independent Joe Lieberman and Democrat John Kerry. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has thrown cold water on the idea, but the president has not ruled out military intervention.

Why would that be a mistake? Plenty of reasons:

Safe, limited measures may not be either. The war party assumes that keeping Libya's air force on the ground—or destroying it should it take flight—will be quick, simple, and painless. But Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen says a no-fly zone would be "an extraordinarily complex operation to set up." It would add costs to a federal budget that is already excessive.

Such operations can lead to American casualties, if our planes are shot down. Errant bombs can kill innocent bystanders, as happens often in Afghanistan. At that point, things suddenly get a lot messier.

Getting in is the easy part. Even perfectly executed operations may fail to turn the tide. Suppose we establish our no-fly zone and Gadhafi's forces proceed to rout the rebels. Do we slink away? Or do we up the ante? Once we start the fight, we may not be able to control when and how it ends. If things go wrong, we will be left with only bad choices.

We would be adding burdens to a military that is already overstretched. If the ongoing wars elsewhere have put unprecedented strain on our volunteer forces, do we really want to demand even more of them?

"The American military," reports The New York Times with dry understatement, "is privately skeptical of humanitarian gestures that put the lives of troops at risk for the cause of the moment, while being of only tenuous national interest." No kidding.

We don't know what we're doing. Most of the people endorsing an attack know less about Libya than they do about playing the oboe. Yet this group is willing to shoot first and ask questions later, forgetting that ignorance usually trumps good intentions.

The United States had plenty of direct experience dealing with Iraq before the 2003 invasion. The Bush administration had more than a year to analyze and prepare for what awaited. But once we had toppled Saddam Hussein, we were hit with one nasty surprise after another.

In Libya, the unknown unknowns are legion. We could be helping to bring to power a government even worse than Gadhafi's or creating a new haven for Islamic terrorists. One option is shipping weapons to the rebels—kind of like what we did in Afghanistan following the 1979 Soviet invasion.

Those weapons, as fate would have it, helped bring the Taliban to power.

We will inflame greater suspicion in the Arab world. Conservatives like to credit George W. Bush's Iraq crusade for spawning democratic movements in Arab nations. But most Arabs don't share that flattering opinion.

Following the Iraq war, Zogby International polls found that by 2006, only 12 percent of Arabs in six countries had a favorable attitude toward the U.S. Two out of three said democracy was not a genuine American goal in the Middle East.

We may harm the cause of those we want to help. One reason these new democratic movements have generated such broad enthusiasm is that they are homegrown—not fostered by Washington at the point of a gun.

"Right now, it's not about us, and I don't want it to be about us," says Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. Once the U.S. attacks, many Arabs will see it as a fight between an Arab leader and the American imperialists bent on subjugating Muslims, not a heroic struggle by the Libyan people against a dictator.

The United States has had an eventful decade in the realm of military and foreign policy. During that time, we have discovered, at a dear cost, the limits to America's power to transform the world. But we can always learn that lesson again.


NEXT: Seeing Red

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  1. Good morning reason!

  2. Justice prevails in the Wisconsin legislature.

    1. if by justice u mean the recalls are underway, the gov’s negatives r over 50% now, & the entire fiasco has energized the left.

      1. R U 4 realzies?

        1. wazat gramps?

      2. At what point in the last 5 years hasn’t the government had negatives >50%?

        1. walker’s negatives were way under 50% until now.

          1. Yes, by all means, let’s have politicians make policy decisions based on momentary knee-jerk blips of public support or lack thereof, instead of rationally looking at the long-term results.

            By that policy, W’s poll numbers after 9/11 would indicate that the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were wonderously good ideas — then.

            The PATRIOT act, by that measure, was a good idea.

            The fucking TSA, by that measure, was a good idea.

            By that policy of handling political decisions, Reagan was a one-term president who did not win reelection in a 49 state landslide.

            The (insert braindead but momentarily popular policy here) …

      3. Aboslutely, I say raise the taxes in Wisconsin and give it to the worthless union shitheads. If that’s what they want, give to them good and hard!

  3. Good morning people I seek attention from. Please sirs, may I have another?

    1. Lefty Canadian Reuters editor Chrystia Freeland is also on board the bomb-Libya-and-join-another-civil-war bandwagon. This one has some strange bedfellows.

      We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

      1. asshole

        1. You are an idiot

  4. Those weapons, as fate would have it, helped bring the Taliban to power.
    I generally agree with Chapman’s overall point in this article, but this, while the conventional wisdom, isn’t accurate.

    Our weapons caused the Soviets to pull out – then, years later, the Marxist government collapsed, and then there followed several years of warlordism and open civil war, and only *then* in the second half of the 90’s, the Taliban was able to take over with arms from Pakistan’s ISI.

    1. Kolohe — will you stop ruining a perfectly good argument by dragging in actual facts? =)

    2. Thank you. This is so much noninterventionist mythmaking.

      1. The warlords we did arm included both Haqqani and Hekmatyar, both of whom are enemies of NATO and the Karzai regime. Haqqani was the guy behind the triple-agent CIA clusterfuck a year or so ago.

        So the argument stands

  5. Left or right wing, nothing unites them more than urge to wage war in far away places.

    1. Why not? It saves or creates jobs.

      1. Waging war saves or creates lives.

        C’mon, ramp up the Orwellian doublespeak.

      2. The best way to drop unemployment would be to start up the draft again…

        …just saying.

    2. It makes them feel their dicks are bigger than they really are.

  6. Both the British and French are in favor of a no-fly zone. However both have cut their military lately so its doubtful that they have the resources to enforce a no-fly zone.

    Nobody seems to know if the Maltese or the Italians are willing to allow the use of their airfields, which is important since they are the closest

    The UN almost certainly wont’ support a no-fly zone, its doubtful NATO will support it since it requires a unanimous vote. Neither the Arab League or the African Union have the resources or the willingness to do a no fly zone

    So if a no-fly zone ever happens then it will be the US doing the heavy lifting and maybe a few aircraft from other countries. And nobody knows how long a no-fly zone will be needed, it could be weeks, months or years.

    Finally a no-fly zone does nothing to stop a ground war and Gadhafi seems to have an advantage there.

    1. So if only a few countries join in with the U.S. that would make Obama a “cowboy” no? Anyone recall how many nations have to be on board before a U.S. action moves from “cowboy unilateralism” to “an international coalition?”
      I’m in favor of keeping our nose out of this one. Let the French and Italian militaries show they can beat up on a third-rate nation (or not).

  7. Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran Libya.

    1. The Cong whacked him at least one time too many!

  8. The Federation United States cannot interfere in what is, by definition, an internal Klingon Libyan affair.

  9. I swear we are just observing

    1. I swear you’re retarded.

      1. Stop all the fucking swearing.

    2. So is Schrodinger……..

      1. HEY! WATCH IT!

  10. Please ban the impostor known as “rather.” There is only one true retard, and that is me. Rather is attempting to spoof me, and I fear this time she has come to close to being truly retarded. Ban her or I will call the internet cops.

    1. Me too! Me too!

      Mendacious douche!

    2. There are no internet cops. It is still an anarchist place.

      Now, Reason could enforce their private property rights and ban that particular troll, but it wouldn’t capture the full, rich flavor of H&R without statist trolls and spoofs thereof.

      1. “the full, rich flavor of H&R”

        To wit:

        Having fun masturbating, buddy? How many times have you jizzed today?

        Lautenberg is a colossal piece of shit. I didn’t know they stacked shit that high.

        You are so fucking stupid; it’s so delicious.

        A humorless douchebag nativist complains about being mocked in South Park and thinks he made a point.

        Wow, dude: a wall of text, plus nativism and peak oil. You win today’s douche award.

        This fucker has an authority fetish the size of the Chrysler Building. What a complete and utter scumbag.

        Not only are you a bloodthirsty asshole, you’re a retarded partisan too. Congratulations.

        You sound like a moron. Congratulations.

        You are the gift that just keeps on giving. What retarded internet thing will you do next?

        Either you are a master of irony or you are the most tone-dead Randroid idiot I’ve ever seen.

        You are either a mendacious fuck or you can’t fucking read.

        Are you purposely obtuse, or just unbelievably stupid?

        You just can’t stop being a fucking idiot, can you?

        Enjoy your subservience, dipshits.

        Islam: dedicated to proving that its adherents are even dumber than other religions’ adherents.

        1. Exactly. Where else can you get so much free entertainment? Full, rich flavor of unrestrained, unmediated, politically incorrect free speech indeed.

        2. You list these like they’re a bad thing.

        3. “the full, rich flavor of H&R”

          Cherry-picking — can I say that without people “sniggering”? — this stuff and not providing contexts does seem to portray H&R as juvenile/jejune.

          I will state without reservation that some of “the full, rich flavor of H&R” — the true insightful wittiness — has gotten me literally ROTFL. That is *one* of the “reasons” I hang here.

        4. No, that’s not the full rich flavor. You left out obscure sci-fi references.

        5. It’s all Episiarch, I think. Posted within 6 minutes, which means rather has a file of this stuff somewhere that she’s been saving up. Scary.

          1. Are you just stupid or paranoid Sf? Adjust your insulin you’re spazzing out again

        6. I love it when someone puts together a “Greatest Hits” album!

      2. i got ur full rich flavor

        1. That’s Tony’s bag, dude. He LIKES hairy fat creepy dudes with freakishly long cocks.

    3. coward

  11. Suppose … Gadhafi’s forces proceed to rout the rebels. Do we slink away? Or do we up the ante?

    Time to dust off the ol’ “Nuke their ass and take the gas!”

    1. “Nuke their ass and take the gas!”

      Ooohhh. My dick just got hard.

      1. So did mine.

        1. And….look mine is bigger….a lot bigger!

      2. I doubt that.

      3. You’re welcome, John. Just remember to call your doctor if it doesn’t go away in 4 hours.

    2. we tried that. the oil doesnt pay for shit

  12. So, by inference, Chapman suggests that the US support the continuation of the Gadhafi regime.

    It is no wonder the Muslim world hates us.

    1. With all due respect, then, let “the Muslim world” take care of Gadhafi.

      1. Ayup! And besides, what’s happening is Allah’s will, and those martyred in the struggle reside in Paradise.

        Why interfere?

        1. It is so written, Sperm Drop.

    2. Not attacking a regime = support?

      1. “Those weapons, as fate would have it, helped bring the Taliban to power.”

        Chapman appears to believe Gadhafi is the least undesirable alternative. By what others have said on this site of pragmatic US foreign policy with regards to such situations, yes that qualifies as support.

        1. So when are joining the fight against Gadhafi? Remember if you don’t fight Gadhafi, you support him.

    3. So, “increasing the likelihood that dictatorial regimes will not fall by associating the rebels with a state perceived to be The Great Satan” = “supporting the continuation of the Gadhafi regime”?

      Fucking unintended consequences and blowback — how do they work?

      1. Whoops, left a NOT out — the above should read: “”increasing the likelihood that dictatorial regimes will fall by NOT associating the rebels with a state perceived to be The Great Satan” = “supporting the continuation of the Gadhafi regime”?

        Fucking preview — how does that work?

      2. Actually, it is more my perception that whatever the US chooses to do here, someone will say it is the wrong thing that encourages Muslims to hold the US in slight regard. If we use military force, we are killing innocent Arabs. If we do nothing, we are implicitly supporting a brutal dictator.

        I am actually in the “don’t interfere” camp.

    4. Yeah, nothing inspires the love of the Muslim world like dropping bombs on them.

      1. Except for pragmatically dealing with the tyrannical kleptocracies that currently rule them.

        1. Which is why the US is so beloved in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    5. By that logic you support the continuation of rape in Sudan. After all, you aren’t actively trying to stop it.

  13. Jeebus H. Why isn’t anyone talking about giving the rebels the man-portable anti-armor and anti-air missiles they need to beat Gaddafi? That’s all it would take. No going to war. No UN resolution. Nuffink.

    Imagine, if you will, that Gaddafi, a long-time Bad Actor and terror sponsor, wins, after being kicked in the nuts by the West. How is that better than him being deposed, the West losing the peace, and some Iran-oriented Islamonutters taking over, again?

    1. Because giving out “man-portable anti-armor and anti-air missiles” to strangers might mean that the next time you see them they will be firing at you. I bet you can get a lot of money on the arms market for such missiles.

  14. I agree, a no-fly zone or other direct military intervention would be the wrong move. There are a few things short of that which we could consider, however:

    1) Grant diplomatic recognition to the provisional Free Libyan government. The conventional wisdom that there is no proper government amongst the rebels is no longer true. It is still a work in progress, but it is at least minimally up and running. They have requested diplomatic recognition from the international community, and France has already extended it. What delays us any further? We surely don’t continue to think that Gadhafi’s thugocracy constitutes a legitimate government, do we? And what if he wins? So what? We’ve already condemned him and thus burnt our bridges behind us, so we might as well cheer on the Free Libyans, regardless of whether they win or lose.

    2) Give the Free Libyans communications gear. This seems to be a huge problem for them right now. They can’t rely on the Libyan telecom infrastructure staying up and being secure, so coordination between Free Libyan civil and military leaders is very poor. A few dozen satellite phones would help a very great deal. This is non-lethal aid, and even has the advantage of being able to be turned off remotely if it falls in the wrong hands. Getting these to them might be a problem, but it surely can’t be an insurmountable problem. We are talking about an aid package that can fit in a duffle bag.

    3) Once we’ve equipped the Free Libyans with sat phones, then we could start feeding them with real-time intel on the positions and movements of loyalist forces. Don’t underestimate the value of this, it could very well make the difference between defeat and victory. We can do this without putting a single American at any risk at all.

    We might do all these things, and the Free Libyans might still lose. That would be a shame, but not as much of a shame as would be the US getting sucked into yet another overseas war. On the other hand, if we fail to do even these few simple things, then the odds of the Free Libyans being defeated go way up. I fail to see what the upside would be of just dithering and failing to do anything at all. All the consequences I can imagine are bad, and that doesn’t include the consequences I can’t imagine.

    1. These are decent ideas. At least someone is thinking constructively.

    2. Yes, all that, plus a few of the missiles R C Dean suggested, chaperoned by a few “contractors.” It’s a little risky, but the payoff of getting rid of another terror-supporting dictator would be worth it.

      1. What exactly is the payoff of getting rid of Gadhafi? Can you quantify it?

  15. From Letter to a Conservative Friend”:

    N., there is really only one thing to say to our president: “Sir, mind your beat!” He is this nation’s policeman, not the world’s. And what do I have left to say to you? Only this: Please don’t imagine that my liberty means more to you than it does to me. Saddam Hussein never threatened my “right to write” what I feel, and neither you nor the soldiers actually over there are fighting to protect any American’s freedom. Now that’s what I find “pretty damn pathetic.”

    For “Saddam Hussein,” substitute ?

  16. Can’t we help the rebels with a reltively small (say $20M) investment? Sounds a lot cheaper and less risky than full-blown military involvement…

  17. I think we should wait until both sides have so exhausted themselves to the point of creating regional difficulties with refugees and general starvation. this may force the UN to ask us to do something. at which time we’ll say “no thanks” you didn’t help us why should we help you.

  18. Because giving out “man-portable anti-armor and anti-air missiles” to strangers might mean that the next time you see them they will be firing at you.

    That’s the risk, all right. Is that more of a risk than a virulently anti-West Gaddafi regime back in the terror business? Than a virulently anti-West Libyan regime that got that way because their only friend when it counted was Iran?

    Is there anyway to “cripple” the missiles, so that they don’t work after X months?

    The answers aren’t self-evident, but this is an option that should at least be discussed.

    I like the sat phone idea.

  19. Following the Iraq war, Zogby International polls found that by 2006, only 12 percent of Arabs in six countries had a favorable attitude toward the U.S. Two out of three said democracy was not a genuine American goal in the Middle East.

    Perhaps because we were actively supporting dictatorships all over the place at the time? Maybe if we stopped doing that, and started giving some support to pro-democracy movements, that would change?

  20. Chapman is approaching the question as if the US is considering acting unilaterally. US leaders may be considering this, but it is not the most likely option. Far more likely is that the UN or NATO enacts a no-fly zone with the support of the Arab League.

    1. Since most of NATO’s capabilities are American and Arab League will only provide a fig leaf of diplomatic cover how does this change the situation. Its still mostly American lives and money being used.

      1. It moots his points about generating suspicion in the Arab world and taking the movement away from the people. The Libyans are asking for the international community to enforce a no-fly zone. If the UN or NATO acts at the request of the Libyans with the blessings of the other Arab and North African states, I don’t see how the nationality of the pilots will be significant to the people in that part of the world.

        1. You miss my point, I really don’t care much about the people in that part of the world, I care about Americans getting killed and wounded and me having to pay for this flying circus over Libya.

          1. I did not realize that the comment thread attached to this article was about you. I apologize for straying off topic.

  21. forget the us government, the american people owe the libyan people nothing.
    these are the same people who danced in the streets on 9/11, who danced in the streets when americans were murdered in a german nightclub, who danced in the streets when the plane went down in lockerbie, who danced in the streets when their national hero who brought down that plane returned to libya.
    help libyans? no.

  22. Sarko favors intervention to get the regime out, let him send French troops. They’re much closer

  23. stephan stackhouse makes the most sense.

    there are non-military ways to help the rebels that are not expensive.

    dipomatic and communication assistance are the least expensive ways to help with the least potential for drawbacks.

  24. Look. It’s simple. We say air attacks on civilians are wrong and the U.S. has the option to stop them.

    And we stop them. With a no fly zone. If JCS Chairman Admiral Mullin doesn’t have a pre-existing 1000 page contingency plan to do that in less than two days he is incompetent and should be court-marshalled.

    Then let the rebels do what they will. At least they will not be strafed by fighter planes.

    We are not “involved”. Just stop the fucking Libyan Air Force.

    If the rebels can’t win after that – well too bad. Not my problem. But maybe the next dictator will think twice about either bombing civilians or losing his air force.

    In the end either Libya has a new government or not. But the world is nudged in a more humane, civilized direction.

  25. awesome. your post is great. its worth reading. thank you.

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