Going (for) Broke in Libya

The U.S. should terminate this costly exercise in do-goodism once and for all.

It is time the United States pulled out of the Libya operation. The stalemate between Qaddafi and the rebels continues, with combat ebbing and flowing between the two sides. Qaddafi has no intention of leaving Libya—the move to brand him a war criminal has all but ruled out that option for him. The rebels, for their part, are making the rounds of Washington, saying all the right things about freedom and democracy to convince bleeding hearts that the rebel cause is just. Shades of Ahmed Chalabi.

The administration, strapped for funds and planning a massive cut in defense spending, announced some six weeks ago that while the first stages of the Libya operation cost $600 million, the ongoing American effort—defined primarily in terms of drone attacks—would cost about $40 million a month. Since it had been expected that the rebels would prevail within weeks—that was the confident prediction of Britain’s government in the early days of the operation—Washington’s own budget gurus anticipated that the total cost of the operation would not exceed $750 million by very much. In fact, that sum has already been reached.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged last week that the DoD had spent $150 million, not $40 million, in the month of April. That was because the intensity of the effort had not let up at all. Moreover, while drones themselves are pilotless, well over one hundred personnel are required to support them, and they cost money too. And the costs keep mounting. At the current rate of monthly expenditures, within two months the United States will have exceeded the billion-dollar mark. Those funds are being drawn from the “baseline” defense budget. Therefore, the cost cannot be defined in terms of dollars alone: every dollar spent on Libya is a dollar not spent on training and other needed operations that are funded by that baseline budget. Moreover, with ongoing and intensifying pressures on the defense budget "topline"—the Senate Budget Committee just announced that it would seek a $900 billion cut in defense spending over the next decade—it is uncertain to what extent the weapons being expended will be replaced in a timely fashion, or ever.

As was to be expected, the allies have been unable to budge Qaddafi, and their own budgets are squeezing them. The British are acknowledging that they too underestimated the cost of the Operation. On March 23, George Osborne, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, confidently predicted to Parliament that the Libya effort would cost Britain “tens of millions of pounds.” Current estimates indicate that its cost will exceed a billion pounds. As Dr. Liam Fox, the British Defense Secretary delicately put it in late April, “perhaps the level and the speed and intensity have been greater than we might have hoped.” Thus far the war’s costs have been funded by the Treasury, not the British defense budget. How long Her Majesty’s Government, strapped for funds and implementing massive cutbacks in domestic services, can continue to drain the Treasury is highly problematical.

As Britain runs out of cash and weapons, and France follows suit, both will press the United States even harder to enmesh itself further in the Libyan mess. Liberal interventionists in Washington will be loath to turn away from the allies’ requests. They will point to the Clinton administration’s belated but ultimately positive response to similar requests for American military action in the Balkans, which led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic and the de facto separation of Kosovo from Yugoslavia. But 2011 is not 1999. The United States is already fighting two wars. It is running a trillion-dollar budget deficit, not a budget surplus. Its economy has nowhere near the buoyancy of a dozen years ago. It cannot afford another adventure.

The administration should resist Europe’s entreaties just as it should take little heed of the blandishments of smooth-talking opposition spokesmen. Not only should the Obama administration not bail out the Europeans, it should terminate this costly exercise in do-goodism once and for all. Let the Libyans sort out their problems; America has problems of its own, which no one but America itself can resolve. Enough is enough.