Two articles in yesterday's New York Times will make you scratch your head over the justification for the U.S.-led war against Libya. In a "news analysis," the paper's Cairo bureau chief, David D. Kirkpatrick, wonders, "Is the battle for Libya the clash of a brutal dictator against a democratic opposition, or is it fundamentally a tribal civil war?" The thrust of the piece is that no one, least of all the people making decisions in Washington, really knows. Kirkpatrick allows that Muammar al-Qaddafi may well be right that violent chaos will follow his departure. On the op-ed page, former Wall Street Journal editor Max Boot, now a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, likewise highlights the risks and uncertainties associated with Barack Obama's war of choice:
Colonel Qaddafi's forces are operating in urban areas where it is extremely difficult to use airpower without killing civilians….
Will the rebels be able to root out Qaddafi loyalists? If not, are we prepared to use Western ground forces? So far President Obama has ruled out that option, which runs the danger of a protracted stalemate. Colonel Qaddafi could simply cling to power, while international support for the whole operation frays.
Even if Colonel Qaddafi steps down — an outcome that I believe we must now seek but that hasn't been declared as a formal aim — the problems hardly end….
The country has had an active Islamist movement that has sent many fighters to Iraq. The collapse of Colonel Qaddafi's police state would mean greater freedom for all Libyans, including jihadists who could try to instigate an insurgency as they did in Iraq.
The danger is compounded by Libya's tribalism. Behind the thin facade of a modern state lies a long, seething history of rivalries among 140 tribes and clans, about whom we know little. Colonel Qaddafi has kept them in check with a combination of brutal repression and generous payoffs. Once he's gone, the tribes could fight one another for the spoils of Libya's oil industry; as in Iraq, some could form alliances with Al Qaeda.
And so on. The really striking thing is that Boot was (and is) an enthusiastic advocate of taking sides in Libya's civil war. He calls it "a worthwhile intervention for both strategic and humanitarian reasons." But complications like the ones Boot and Kirkpatrick outline are a strong argument for avoiding military entanglements except when they are clearly necessary to protect national security. When in doubt, stay out.