Another War of Choice

Libya: the crisis least relevant to America's interests. Yet still we walk into the many traps.

Given the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of all appropriate measures against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces, it is now probable that the United States and its NATO allies (possibly with token commitments from some members of the Arab League) will initiate a military intervention in Libya at some point. The hasty cease-fire that the Qaddafi government announced following passage of the resolution is not likely to alter that policy trajectory for long.

Trenchant critics have presented numerous valid objections to a Western intervention, starting with pointing out the absurdity of President Obama’s assertion that the events in that country pose an “unusual and severe” threat to America’s security and interests. The reality is that it would be hard to find a situation that is less relevant to America’s genuine interests. Libya is a small country with little political or strategic impact beyond its borders. And Qaddafi, despite his many odious qualities, gave up both his involvement with terrorist ventures and his embryonic nuclear program years ago. Although the country is a mid-sized oil producer, instability there has had only a modest impact on global oil markets. There is neither a strategic nor an economic justification for a U.S.-led military crusade.

Other advocates of caution have warned that even the imposition of a no-fly zone—to say nothing of the more robust, and highly probable, option of air strikes on Libyan military targets—could lead to a much deeper and protracted mission. Finally, opponents of America’s new looming war note that the United States is already overcommitted, both militarily and financially, in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan. A nation running a $1.5 trillion federal budget deficit this year should not be looking for new ways to spend money—especially on yet another unnecessary “war of choice.”

But there are also less obvious traps lurking for the United States and its allies in a Libyan intervention. One is that even well-intentioned interference on behalf of the rebels is likely to raise suspicions in that country and throughout much of the Muslim world that Washington is trying to hijack the Libyan uprising for its own purposes. Given America’s woeful reputation among Muslim populations, such accusations are inevitable and are likely to be believed. Although the Arab League’s endorsement of a no-fly zone may marginally mitigate those suspicions, it will not eliminate them. Indeed, the “Arab street” tends to regard many of the regimes represented in the Arab League as little more than Washington’s stooges. Allegations of American imperialism and European neocolonialism will not be long in coming once the intervention takes place. That miasma will linger even if the Western powers manage to keep their commitment not to put boots on the ground in this mission—a degree of restraint that is by no means certain.

Finally, the United States and its allies are wandering into a murky political and demographic minefield in Libya. Western media and policy types have a fuzzy image of the rebels as brave, democratic insurgents determined to liberate the country from a brutal tyrant. But there are other, perhaps far more important, elements involved. Libya itself is yet another fragile, artificial political entity that the European colonial powers created. Italy cobbled together three disparate provinces to establish its Libyan colony. Those areas consisted of Cyrenaica in the east (centered aroundon the cities of Benghazi and Tobruk), Tripolitania in the west (centered around Tripoli, which became the colonial capital), and less populous and less important Fezzan in the south-southwest.

The key point is that the various tribes inhabiting Cyrenaica and Tripolitania had almost nothing in common. Indeed, they sometimes had an adversarial relationship. Yet, when the victorious Allied powers took control of Libya from Italy during and after World War II, they maintained this unstable amalgam instead of separating it into its more cohesive constituent parts.