The Libyan civil war may or may not be over—if Iraq is any indicator, it is far from over—but the cost of the war to the United States is sure to rise in any event. At the end of July the Pentagon announced that the Libyan operation has cost nearly $900 million. This is a surprisingly low estimate, since American involvement in the NATO effort has intensified over the past few months, and the cost of the war had already exceeded $500 million by late March.
But it is not clear whether the latest estimate includes the cost of the 200 Tomahawk missiles, at $1.5 million each, that were fired at Qaddafi’s forces. Most likely it does not; in that case, the war’s price tag rises to $1.2 billion. In addition, the Pentagon estimate probably does not include the cost of the F-15 that the rebels shot down: add another $60 million to the total bill.
There are those who would argue that one or even two billion is a paltry sum to pay for freeing Libya from Qaddafi’s yoke. After all, Afghanistan costs the American taxpayer about as much in less than a week’s worth of operations. But that is not the point: at issue is whether the United States should have become this deeply involved in Libya at all, and whether, because of its involvement, it must inevitably also become enmeshed in the reconstruction of Libyan society.
Already there are those who call for a Balkan-style stabilization force to prevent a further outbreak of tribal warfare. And who but the Americans might be in a position to man such a force? Surely not the Europeans. The Continent remains in the midst of a seemingly insoluble economic crisis; most of its NATO members are planning further cuts in their defense budgets to the point that defense will consume less than 1.25% of their GDP.
Surely not the Arab League either; it is one thing for Qatar to contribute to the air campaign, quite another for Arab forces to be caught on the ground between warring tribes. Even if an array of Arab troops ventured to insert themselves into the likely mess on the ground that will be Libya, they would require logistic and other support, and probably a command structure as well, that only the United States would be in a position to provide. Will the American taxpayer—and voter—countenance yet another American land-based foray into the Arab Middle East? Will the Arabs themselves?
Then there is the question of “governance.” All agree that Libya would need assistance in establishing a form of representative government that is alien to a country ruled successively by Italian overlords, King Idris, and then Qaddafi. Should the United States, with its rather dismal record in nation building and its indifferent success in Iraq and Afghanistan, throw its resources for such a project? One would hope not.
Contrary to Washington’s habit of dismissing a billion dollars as little more than a “rounding error,” the cost of Libya thus far, and the cost of any additional American engagement, is not to be trifled with at a time when programs, including defense programs, are being eviscerated due to budget deficits. There is such a thing as opportunity cost, money not spent on Libya can be put to better use easing the pain of the American taxpayer.
The United States simply must curb its predilection for throwing its money at any and all of the world’s ills. If the stabilization and reconstruction of Libya is truly a worthwhile undertaking, it is as worthwhile for other states as for the United States. Let those others, whoever they might be, bear all the costs, for a change.