Is Libya a National Interest? (Updated)

(Updated with “related articles” at the end of the page.)

Over the weekend, a lot of hay was made over a comment by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. During an interview with ABC, he said the following regarding Libya:

It was not — it was not a vital national interest to the United States.

The headline on the DRUDGE Report read, “GATES: Libya Posed No Threat to USA, Was Not ‘Vital National Interest’ to Intervene.” Taken for that lone sentence, you would think that we engaged Libya simply to “Wag the dog” or some insignificant reason, but if you read more of what Gates said, you can see what he was trying to say:

The engagement of the Arabs, the engagement of the Europeans, the general humanitarian question that was at stake.

There was another piece of this though, that certainly was a consideration. You’ve had revolutions on both the East and the West of Libya. … So you had a potentially significantly destabilizing event taking place in Libya that put at risk potentially the revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt, … and that was another consideration I think we took into account.

It is true that what happens in Libya does have an impact on the region. If the rebels fail, and with the world already turning against him, Gaddafi would only be embolden to reengage in international terrorist attacks as he has done in the past. In addition, he might follow through on his threat to retaliate against those who tried to overthrow him. This would lead to even more refugees fleeing Libya into the two neighboring nations, creating a population imbalance as well as economic strife on the two new/interim governments. But let us shift our attention for a moment to two other countries in the region for a moment.

For years, the international world condemned the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan and complained about the inaction of the nations around the world to stop it. Politicians from both parties in our country often stated that the prior administrations didn’t do enough to protect the innocents that were being killed by a ruthless leader. UN Peacekeepers finally entered the region, but only after roughly 300,000 people were killed while the rest of the world stood by and watched. If you look at Iraq, Saddam Hussein killed roughly 200,000 Kurds and Shi’ites after the Persian Gulf war ended, even though these two sides rose up in protest against Saddam following the West’s encouragement. Between those two countries alone, there were half a million civilians killed by vengeful governments.

Acta Non Verba is the motto the United States Merchant Marine Academy (one of the five Federal service academies). It means, “Deeds not words.” In Libya, we have a ruler who has declared that he will show no mercy to those who rise up against him. Rebels enjoyed weeks of success against the pro-government forces, but were quickly beaten back once the organized military started fighting back. The Rebels fell back to their stronghold and were facing eminent annihilation when the international forces started providing cover. If we had not acted at that time, not only were those found with guns in their hands most likely be killed, but odds are that their families and supporters would also face down the barrel of a gun. Could we have sat by and watched yet another massacre and not do anything?

We, as a member of a global community, are in a position to protect those who need protection. But before we act, maybe we should work out our positions on when to act:

- Do we have to intervene in every nation where there is a populist uprising?
- How do we determine which uprising are worthy of support?
- Where do we draw a line to differentiate deaths resulting from police action against an unruly mob and genocide?
- What limits do we place on our involvement? Simply leveling the playing field or following through with regime change?
- Do we have the resources available to manage multiple theatres of involvement without weakening our war preparedness?
- How do we defend our constant involvement without being accused of empire building?

Unfortunately, there really isn’t any clear “universal” answer to these questions that can guide us in every issue. We really do not want to see innocent people killed, yet we really don’t want to have to go to war every time a nation starts to crack down on their civilians. In the case of Libya, short of fully supporting the rebels in their quest for regime change, we might end up doing more harm than good. Denying Gaddafi the use of his air force will decrease his ability of countering the rebel surge, but he still has a superior level of firepower. Going in with simply a no-fly zone and allowing the rebellion to fail is like poking a stick into a wasp nest. You’re going to end up getting stung.

Two notes:

- I started writing this prior to the Presidential address Monday night, so I currently do not have any context regarding his speech to add into this article.
- I do support the no-fly zone, even if the current mission is not clearly defined.

(Updated) Related articles:

The Legitimacy of the Libyan War – Cato @ Liberty

We have now taken on a default obligation to help every victim and to punish every oppressor throughout the world. We have two constraints on fulfilling that obligation. The first, mentioned by the president, is costs. Eventually the financial markets may limit our efforts on behalf of victims. Second, and more important legally, a president must seek authorization for war from the United Nations, the European union, the Arab League or….well, anyone except the United States Congress.

Why Libya’s precedent is dangerous – Questions and Observations

The unfortunate thing is this “precedent” as Joe Lieberman correctly identifies it, sets us up to commit to an unlimited number of wars in the Middle East and elsewhere – just so we manage to get a sanction of some sort of NGO or another in the process. We’re officially in the “others volunteering our military” business, the “world policeman’s league” with this action – and as I understood it that was something Democrats and left objected too strenuously.

The Military Deserves Better – A Soldier’s Perspective

When the most powerful military in the world is called to put steel on target, there needs to be a good reason for it. Americans are being called to KILL PEOPLE! No one should take that lightly! If the mission isn’t clear to Americans, it probably isn’t clear to the rest of the world either. This does not help our efforts to encourage the Muslim or Arab population that we aren’t at war with them as a people.

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