We've Only Just Begun

Forget "support." The United States will have to be at the front of the Libya operation. But it must resist the urge to undertake open-ended adventures. And above all: no nation building.

President Obama announced in his speech to the nation that the United States will shortly be "handing off" to NATO the leadership of the ongoing military operation in Libya. He did not say exactly what the United States would continue to do, other than to be in a supportive role. "Supportive" is a very elastic term, however. In fact, it may have to be stretched some distance if Qaddafi's forces continue to hold out, much less regain some ground, against the rebels for more than one or two months. That is so because the Europeans, and Britain in particular, simply do not have the military resources, or the requisite economic strength, or the domestic political support to prosecute a high intensity campaign of air strikes for any greater length of time.

Britain's defense posture is in full retreat: the Conservative-LibDem coalition government has announced major cutbacks in the defense budget. Britain's overall deficit is huge, and its economy remains in uncertain condition. And the British public, which long ago rejected Her Majesty's Government's Iraq operation, has tired of Britain's role in Afghanistan as well. There is simply no patience left for a sustained operation in Libya's skies.

Other European states, apart from France, are equally unfit for maintaining an open-ended operation, either because their military forces are small, or even tiny, compared to those of the UK and France, because of their own weak economies, because of their reluctant publics, or because of a combination of all three factors. As for France, while President Sarkozy's popularity has skyrocketed (from an admittedly dismal baseline) as a result of his leading role in organizing an international military coalition against Qaddafi, it is far from clear that the French public will continue to support his aggressive pro-rebel policy if the war drags on. Indeed, even if that support is forthcoming, it is unclear whether France could "lead" the operation on its own if its exhausted European allies find themselves compelled to withdraw their forces. Qatar's handful of aircraft currently operating in Libya's airspace clearly could not pick up the slack, and other Arab states have made no move to contribute their forces to the international military effort.

Since the French could not go it alone, or virtually alone, they would need "support." Such "support" can only come from the United States. "Support" at that point in the campaign will therefore mean something quite different from that which the Obama administration would wish Americans to infer: it would mean once again prosecuting the air-to-ground battle (if indeed the US ever really stops doing so), and playing a significant role in maintaining to maintain the no-fly zone, in addition to providing intelligence, logistical, and other assistance that normally falls under the rubric of "support."

Even if Qaddafi is defeated, and either leaves the country or is killed, America's involvement in Libya will have only just begun. President Obama naturally did not want to signal to the American public that Washington is likely to take on yet another nation-building exercise. Yet the same economic constraints that will prevent Europeans from sustaining a long-term military operation will hamper any efforts that they might undertake to help rebuild Libya--if they are even willing to do so. Recent American experience in "fund raising" for Iraq and Afghanistan has yielded mixed results, while its actual on-the-ground efforts at restoring their economies, introducing the rule of law and developing viable governance structures likewise hardly have been an unequivocal success.

The great unspoken hope of Washington policy makers is that the Gulf Arabs, who continue to reap the benefits of oil price hikes, will come through with financial support. Don't bet on it. James Baker's successful effort to cover the costs of the 1991 Gulf War has never been matched with regard to either the Arabian Gulf kingdoms and emirates, or other countries. Moreover, those ruling the Arab Gulf states are worried about instability in Bahrain and in their own countries. They simply cannot be relied upon to help fund Libyan reconstruction.

Who then would pay for the privilege of cleaning up after Qaddafi's mess? The temptation for Washington to fill the post-Qaddafi reconstruction vacuum will be very hard to resist. But it must do so. Just as the United States can no longer see itself as the world's policeman, so should it not engage in fantasies of recasting former dictatorships into liberal democracies funded by American billions. America's historic track record at nation-building is hardly stellar, and the jury is still out on Iraq and Afghanistan in this regard. Engaging in Libyan reconstruction would be even more foolhardy than continuing to pursue an open-ended operation military operation in that country. Both should be avoided, at all costs.

Image (c) World Economic Forum, swiss-image.ch/Photo by Remy Steinegger