The conventional wisdom is that U.S.-led NATO vanquished the ruthless and despotic Moammar Gadhafi. And that is largely what happened.
Gadhafi had one of the worst human rights records on the planet, was autocratic, and was even downright bizarre at times. Moreover, although the U.S. pretended to play only a limited, background role in NATO’s effort in Libya, its initial suppression of Libyan air defenses and its surveillance and communication technology played a key role in bringing down the Gadhafi regime. In fact, the Libyan conflict demonstrates that the U.S. is perfecting the technique of using ragtag local ground forces to fix enemy regime forces in place so that its air power can pummel them into sawdust. Previously, the United States had demonstrated this capability using the Kosovo Liberation Army to wrest Kosovo from Serbia in 1999 and using the Northern Alliance to take over Afghanistan after 9/11. The successful invasion of Iraq also was conducted using smaller quantities of forces on the ground — this time U.S. forces — in combination with the employment of massive U.S. air power. This model seems to promise winning brushfire wars without much cost in either blood or treasure.
Of course, the quagmires that Afghanistan and Iraq have become should indicate that, in many cases, this model is flawed. Taking over the country is one thing and ruling it is quite another. As with those two conflicts, if guerrilla war, tribal civil war, or general chaos results in Libya, the world will look to NATO to solve the problem. Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Rule” — “if you break it, you’ve bought it” — is a truism in foreign policy circles but is nevertheless regularly ignored.
In Libya, another way to put it is: What has NATO won? Progressive administration apologists, making a not-so-odd alliance with neoconservatives, have taken to the airwaves touting the many Libyan lives saved and the brutal dictator toppled. Of course, the former was just theoretical — Gadhafi had made bombastic threats before that were never carried out — and was a fig leaf for the not-so-hidden real purpose all along: taking advantage of an internal Libyan uprising against Gadhafi to get rid of the tyrant while the getting was good.
Gadhafi was demonized by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s (even though Reagan started the long dustup by purposefully provoking Gadhafi in 1981 with U.S. naval power off the Libyan coast), much as Saddam Hussein was by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Once such dictators have been upgraded into the “evil incarnate” caricature (the equally despotic Saudi regime has not transitioned into this category because it is the world’s most important oil producer), pressure builds among American officials, the media, and the pundits for regime change.
Also, those progressive and neoconservative pundits have crowed about how cheap the Libyan intervention was in casualties and money. So far, compared to the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, I guess they have a point. But as the famous baseball player and coach Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” And these brushfire conflicts never seem to be over. Now that the U.S. and NATO have taken such a big stake in Libya’s outcome, money and even casualties could be required for any needed ground force to prevent chaos or civil war or just to keep the country stable. Even if no ground force is needed, money will be needed to help rebuild the country and ensure its future stability. With the U.S. in dire economic and fiscal straits — record federal budget deficits and more than $14 trillion in national debt — and two other costly wars still ongoing, America cannot even afford a cheap war. If you are broke, you shouldn’t just eat at TGI Friday’s instead of an expensive restaurant; you need to eat at home.
Worst of all, we don’t really know what will come next in Libya. In retrospect, Gadhafi may look much better if radical anti-U.S. Islamists eventually take over the country. The U.S. has seemed to be so worried about this outcome in Syria that, up until recently, it was reluctant to call for the ouster of the equally brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The same worry should have applied to Libya.
The problem with wars, even ones with laudable goals, is that the unintended consequences are usually severe. Recalling that U.S. support of Islamist rebels in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union morphed into the worst foreign threat to American soil since the War of 1812 should have given the United States some pause in getting involved in the Libyan conflict. It didn’t.
Yet the Libyan conflict could produce equally nasty outcomes. Gadhafi was reported to have stockpiled 20,000 man-portable anti-aircraft weapons, which could be used by terrorists to shoot down commercial airliners. Many of these weapons have gone missing in Libya, with their wooden cases empty. Andrew J. Shapiro, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, has said that these unsecured missiles in Libya are “one of the things that keep me up at night.” The president of Chad and officials in Algeria, whose countries neighbor Libya, have said that some of those missiles have traveled over their borders to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which calls North Africa home.
Finally, during the years before his downfall, Gadhafi had settled his differences with the West, giving up his nuclear weapons program and paying victims of Libyan-sponsored terror attacks in the 1980s. Like the lesson that nuclear aspirants (for example, Iran) learned from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — countries on the outs with the U.S. without nuclear arms don’t get any respect from the American superpower — the toppling of a nuclear-disarmed Gadhafi gives them little incentive to give up such weapons programs and every incentive to accelerate them.
So perhaps the removal of Gadhafi in Libya is not as much of a triumph as it first appears.