The president speaks tomorrow on Libya. Expect him to assure us of success, thousands of lives saved, and a mission now “toned down” and “handed over” to NATO. Let us hope that is all true. But there are existential problems with Libya that will have to be addressed, whether Obama chooses to or not.
1) A no-fly zone will not remove Gaddafi. That is why our cruise-missile attacks and European bombing have already gone beyond the Arab League/UN mandate. Gaddafi, like Milosevic, can win without a helicopter or jet in the sky. To see the rebellion succeed, Obama (or his European allies) must violate the UN and Arab League sanctions that we now boast about following — and destroy his ruling cadre in Tripoli through bombing ground targets, not chasing non-existent jet formations. And that would be “war,” not “kinetic” operations.
2) Borrowing for Tomahawks. We are six to seven trillion dollars more in debt than when we went into Iraq, when the 2003 budget deficit was well under $400 billion, not over $1.6 trillion. The country is now in far more dire economic straits than eight years ago. And the length and expense of this present mission will be calibrated as few missions have been in the past (hence the administration’s understandable insistence on “days,” rather than “weeks” or “months” of fighting). We spent over a $100 million on day one in launching Tomahawk missiles (lots of unemployment checks and shovel-ready stimulus projects that went up in smoke). Even if everything goes well, the cost will be in the billions of dollars, especially rebuilding the infrastructure that we are now blowing up. Perhaps we can ask the strapped Japanese to buy more rather than sell off our Treasury notes—to help fund the Tomahawks and the rebuilding of the bombed-out Gaddafi infrastructure: we need your money to rebuild Tripoli; you can work out your nuclear thing later. (Sort of like telling 400 million Chinese who have not seen a Western doctor to loan us another trillion dollars to implement ObamaCare).
3) Minutemen? I believe there is a Western veneer of rebels and these are good-hearted and brave reformers. And I believe most don’t know an RPG from an IED. Those that do are not pro-Western and not about to remove Gaddafi and his odious bunch in order to foster republican government. The truth is that in the Arab Middle East constitutional government works mostly 1) in Israel; or 2) when the U.S. (in Germany, Italy, Japan fashion) removes a tyrant, destroys his government, occupies the country, writes the Constitution, and puts tens of thousands of troops on the ground to rebuild the society and shoot those who would hijack the reform — as in Iraq. Oddly, these are the two countries Obama has most criticized. So the chance of a lasting Libyan consensual state arising from the ashes of Gaddafi are rather slim without such Western tutelage and expense. I fear the removal of tyrants is not the end of the Middle East war, but merely stage I, in Iranian 1979-1981 fashion, followed by stage II when the Islamists either liquidate the Google executives or co-opt the military.
4) Monster in Recovery? To destroy Gaddafi we must demonize him as a terrorist monster. He is. But there are a few recent problems with that. In the last five years, he had convinced many Westerners — mostly liberals — that he is now OK and should not be judged by the old Bush Manichean “with us or against us” standards. He gave up his WMD in fear of a Saddam-like fate. One of his Western educated kids has bought a reputable PhD from the London School of Economics with a cash-on-the-barrel £ 1.5 million “gift.” The British government released the Lockerbie bomber, got some good oil concessions, and declared the matter over. The so-called Monitor Group, staffed by Harvard professors and other Ivy League idealists, hires scholars for dollars to write encomia about the now good Gaddafi. And Beyoncé and Mariah Carey made a proverbial oil-funded killing performing for the now retrained Gaddafis. Major Western statesmen regularly visit Gaddafi’s tent. So while you and I think that he is a monster, the multicultural left, and the corporate right, think, well, that he either should not be judged by our arbitrary ethnocentric standards, or has lots of oil and money — or both. Bottom line: the reset Gaddafi is a little harder sell as a monstrosity than the body-shredding and Kurd-gassing Saddam Hussein.
5) Who’s Them? The two worst dictatorships in the Middle East are Iran and Syria — just those which the president declared we would not “meddle” in and would seek “outreach” to. The two least bad dictatorships were the Mubarak and Ben Ali juntas — just those we ordered to dissolve. We don’t need absolute consistency from Obama, but we need a tiny bit of it: so please, is our intervention good in Libya to help reformers, and Saudi Arabia’s bad in Bahrain to hurt them? Are there more Libyans dying from tyrannical government and chaos than Congolese or those of the Ivory Coast? And because Yemenis and Jordanians do not vote, should we support them in their efforts to topple their pro-Western monarchs? And are Middle Eastern plebiscites that one time usher in illiberals preferable to no plebiscites that keep in power autocrats more liberal than their people? At least Bush had 23 unique reasons, as put forth by Congress in October 2002 (e.g., from genocide of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs to trying to kill a former U.S. president to harboring the 1993 World Trade Center bomber, etc.), to take out Saddam — most of them would not apply to a Libya or Tunisia or Egypt. Is Libya, then, the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end of the U.S. bombing of oil-producing Arab countries?