In the spring of 2003, the United States and a haphazard coalition of willing partners rushed into war in the Middle East for a variety of bad reasons. This debacle was, of course, the invasion of Iraq. Now in the spring of 2011, we skip merrily into another Arab abyss, this time in Libya, with a haphazard coalition of partners and no clear strategy to eventually leave, while we are still fighting two other wars and virtually every country in the region is in chaos.
Do we have legitimate strategic interests in Libya? There are only three interests that the United States really has in the Middle East: oil, terrorism and Iran. Libyan oil production is all of 2 percent of the world’s total. Muammar al-Qaddafi had given up his sponsorship of world terrorism in the past few years, and Western military intervention into his country, if anything, risks him starting that up again. Libya is too remote to be at serious risk of falling into Iran’s orbit and blocking American interests in the Mideast. In a strictly self-interested sense then, the United States has no reason to be in Libya.
But isn’t the No-Fly Zone protecting civilians from immanent genocide at the hands of Colonel Qaddafi? The short answer is that it is really difficult to say. Although when Qaddafi has retaken rebel cities there have been no mass retributions, even though he has nothing left to lose by doing so, the world has decided that only their fighter jets are preventing the imminent death of thousands of innocent Libyans. It seems we learned the lesson of Rwanda far too well. Now instead of being overly hesitant to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, we take chances and intervene without any clear signs that we need to.
Even that complicated answer makes things far too simple. If it were just a mere issue of preventing genocide or promoting democracy there are numerous other candidates for intervention. The Ivory Coast sits on the brink of civil war and 500,000 people are displaced as the forces of President Gbagbo use torture, rape and murder to preserve their leader’s power, despite elections in which nearly the entire world recognized his opponent as the legitimate victor. Yet the Security Council has virtually no chance of authorizing any sort of intervention. Saudi Arabia deployed troops to put down a pro-democracy movement in neighboring Bahrain, yet there is no prospect of Western forces pounding Saudi armed columns from the air. Dozens of protesters are dead in Syria too, but once again there is no Security Council resolution protecting the civilians of Syria.
It is my view that the nations of the West felt pressure to do something in response to the so-called “Arab Spring” and Libya happened to be the convenient place in which to do it. Iran and Syria are too dangerous to mess with, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are too friendly to the West and the Ivory Coast is just in the wrong place in the world. Libya was an easy narrative to sell: evil madman in power and heroic resistance movement (and for the nations of Europe, the specter of masses of Libyan refugees overwhelming their shores probably helped tip the scales). Whether that narrative is telling the truth about Libya is being treated as a minor concern.
We are in another Middle Eastern quagmire with no idea how to get out. Our current plans seem to be to sit around hoping that Qaddafi’s inner circle will overthrow him. If that doesn’t happen—then what exactly? At that point, the fallback plan seems to be to wish and hope that a group of disorganized and poorly-armed rebels will successfully take over the whole country. The rebels have failed to make real progress in the past few weeks, raising the possibility of a protracted civil war in which the West would have a very difficult time extracting itself.
It remains entirely possible that none of this will happen. The worrying thing is that none of our policymakers seem overly interested in asking questions about the long-term effects of our commitment to Libya; a trait, it is impossible not to notice, that they share with the planners of our war in Iraq.