Cheat Sheet: Should the U.S. Intervene in Libya?
As Gaddafi’s response to Libya’s revolution turns violent, lawmakers’ calls for U.S. intervention are intensifying. The Daily Beast rounds up the opinions of six top thinkers on whether the U.S. should get involved—and how. Plus, read our
full coverage of the revolution in Libya.
As protesters took to the streets and demanded democratic reforms in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Yemen, the U.S. hung back, restricting its involvement to strategic expressions of solidarity. But with similar demonstrations in Libya turning from marches to bloody clashes to full-fledged civil war, there’s a growing push among American hawks to take an active role in supporting rebels against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
Advocates say it’s immoral and unwise for the U.S. to stand idly by while Gaddafi uses tanks, warplanes, and foreign mercenaries to slaughter his own people and put down a revolution that could give birth to a democratic government. Some American politicians, including Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman, have called for a no-fly zone over Libya that would prevent Gaddafi’s forces from bombing rebels but would be much cheaper and feasible than putting actual boots on the ground. Britain and France have also argued for a no-fly zone. But some analysts say that’s not enough, and insist that the U.S. and other members of the international community should send ground troops if necessary.
The Obama administration has responded cautiously so far, echoing its measured approach to most of the Middle East protests. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned that a no-fly zone would be a much more massive, complicated, and dangerous mission than some lawmakers believe. Their position is complicated by China and Russia’s longstanding opposition to most foreign intervention efforts, which could preclude any U.N. Security Council action.
While the debate plays out in Washington, there’s no shortage of opinions for them to draw on. Christopher Dickey, Middle East editor for Newsweek and The Daily Beast argues that no-fly zone is an absolute necessity, because inaction could alienate young Arabs in the same way that American failure to assist Shiite rebels against Saddam Hussein in 1991 destroyed trust in the U.S. Here are six other smart and thoughtful reasons why the U.S. should—or shouldn’t—send in the planes or the Marines.
1. It’s Too Complicated, It’s Too Risky, and It Doesn’t Matter That Much
There’s no good reason to open this Pandora’s box, warns Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. It’s a matter of realpolitik, he writes. First, Libya isn’t a crucial point for U.S. policy, either for oil or for regional stability (as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are, respectively). Even with humanitarian concerns, a no-fly zone or a no-drive zone would be prohibitively complicated and expensive to run—and would probably mean war, as soon as allied planes clashed with Gaddafi’s air force. And the inherent risk to helping the rebels—especially through as volatile a move as handing weapons to them—is that that we don’t know enough about the rebels and their goals. “The last thing [the U.S. military] needs is another vaguely defined intervention in a place where U.S. interests are less than vital,” Haass writes.
2. Leave It to the Libyans
What’s the best way to ruin a motivated, impassioned, and unified Libyan resistance? Get the West involved, says Muhammad min Libya, a pseudonymous blogger for The Guardian (his pen name means “Muhammad from Libya”). Even limited foreign intervention would encourage far greater violence and bloodshed, especially on the part of pro-Gaddafi forces. It would also divide a resistance that’s unified against Gaddafi but split on foreign involvement. But worst, it would rob the most deserving of a victory: “Libyans fought alone when western countries were busy ignoring their revolution at the beginning, fearful of their interests in Libya. This is why I'd like the revolution to be ended by those who first started it: the people of Libya.”
3. U.S. Credibility Hinges on Our Willingness to Act
President Obama has stood by as American allies in Cairo, Tunis, Manama, and Amman have been toppled or threatened. Meanwhile, enemies like Hezbollah and Hamas remain in power, and Gaddafi adds to that tally, writes David Frum, a commentator and former speechwriter for George W. Bush. It’s important that the U.S. not make the mistake of abandoning democrats as it did in 1991, but it’s even more important that Obama show that America isn’t kidding when it condemns Gaddafi’s use of violence. Otherwise, he writes, the message will be clear. “If you were the king of Saudi Arabia, what conclusion would you draw?” Frum wonders. “Would you not assess: It's a lot safer to be an American enemy than an American friend? After all, an American enemy can use maximum violence with impunity.”
4. Have We Learned Nothing From Iraq?
This is a question that’s only being asked on Capitol Hill and on the opinion pages of America’s newspapers, scolds Anne Applebaum, an American journalist who lives in Poland. The reason? Everyone fears another Iraq. During the run-up to that war, the world was assured it would be a quick, painless fight intended only to decapitate the regime. Yes, it’s important to take a range of steps to kneecap Gaddafi, but it’s also important for American policymakers to remember what they’ve learned: every country comes with a complicated set of alliances, cultural inheritances, divisions, and secrets. As for the Libyans, “I don't hear them clamoring for us to come,” Applebaum says. “They are afraid of what American ‘assistance’ might do to their country.”
5. Leaving Libya Alone Creates an Opening for Enemies
Haass is right to look at the case from the perspective of American interests, but his calculations are flawed, suggests Lee Smith, writing for the neoconservative Weekly Standard. Where others see a potentially chaotic scene with Americans caught in the crossfire, Smith sees a potentially chaotic scene with Americans cowering in fear while Iran or al Qaeda rushes into the breach and turns what looks like a democratic revolution into an existential danger to the U.S. American reluctance is understandable given two ongoing wars, but the stakes are too high to wait. “While the administration dithers, the crisis is steadily building toward civil war,” Smith writes. “If so, that war would destabilize Africa as well as other Arab states, and cause considerable damage to American prestige and influence. Continued lassitude on our part only heightens the risk.”
6. Don’t Help Gaddafi
The U.S. is right to hold its fire, says Middle Eastern scholar Sami Hermez. Despite fierce fighting, it’s not clear that arms would help Libyan rebels, and they still may be able to overcome forces loyal to Gaddafi. More direct intervention, whether from the air or on the ground, would bolster the lingering despot in two ways. First, the sight of Western planes shooting down Libyan fighters would arouse sympathies from patriotic Libyans—even those opposed to the regime. Second, it would validate the propaganda Gaddafi’s been using since protests started. “Aiding opposition forces by supplying them with military capabilities will only make it easier for Gaddafi and his loyalists to cast these forces as unpatriotic tools of ‘Western’ interests,” Hermez writes.