Jacob Heilbrunn

Mission Creep in Libya

There's always been something a little odd about American involvement in Libya. President Obama explained that he was trying to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and that Col. Qaddafi must go. But Qaddafi has put up a much stiffer fight than Obama and his allies David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy ever anticipated. The rebels, meanwhile, are a motley crew, one that even Secretary of Hillary Clinton has trouble defining. No one really seems to know who they are, except that they probably include a goodly number of Islamic radicals in their ranks.

But why be concerned about that? Western prestige is now on the line. Hence the decision to employ armed drones in Libya, "deepening," as the Washington Post politely puts it, American involvement in what amounts to a civil war. Can you say mission creep?

One problem with American involvement in Libya is that it is, at bottom, a diversion from its mission in Afghanistan. Libya was once a source of terrorism. But it hasn't been for about a decade. Qaddafi had been largely tamed. Afghanistan, by contrast, remains a potent source of danger to America. Predator drones should be flying there, not over Libya.

David Ignatius points to another difficulty. According to Ignatius, "It brings a weapon that has become for many Muslims a symbol of the arrogance of U.S. power into a theater next door to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the most promising events in a generation. It projects American power in the most negative possible way." The drones are symptomatic of America's desire to wage war via air power. Obama has no intention of inserting ground troops into Libya. He has, in other words, created the worst of all possible worlds. America has pledged to remove a dictator. But Obama is unwilling to enforce that pledge. Instead, he is prolonging the conflict.

As the tumult spreads across the Middle East, America is injecting itself, step-by-step, into the Arab revolutions. Now Syria is going up in flames. Even if he and defense secretary Robert Gates don't want to get involved in Syria, they will inevitably face calls to do something. Will American predators be circling over Damascus within a month or two?