It was on Feb. 23 that President Obama said regarding Libya that the United States would “stand up for freedom, stand up for justice, and stand up for the dignity of all people.” And on Feb. 25 Secretary Clinton asserted that, “This is a time for action. Now is the opportunity for us to support all who are willing to stand up on behalf of the rights we claim to cherish.” On Mar. 2, she observed that the events in the region demanded a “strong and strategic response.” They were right, but so far our actions have not matched these words. ~Michael Singh

Singh makes a strong case that the administration has erred by making such excessive statements, not least because it provides an opening to arguments for intervention. What he doesn’t do is make a persuasive argument that the U.S. should intervene in Libya. These statements create expectations that the U.S. is willing to lend direct support to opposition forces in a number of countries, and it doesn’t seem that this is actually going to happen. The administration should match up its public rhetoric more closely with what it is prepared to do, but it doesn’t follow that it should follow through on general promises of help with specific military actions in Libya.

According to Singh, the U.S. risks its credibility by not acting. Aside from the fact that this is what interventionists always say about every crisis everywhere in the world, the main thing that jeopardizes U.S. credibility is pledging support for foreign political causes prematurely before we know what we’re endorsing and making promises that the U.S. cannot or will not keep. We have heard this before. Before NATO intervened in Kosovo, we frequently heard the argument that NATO’s “credibility” was at stake.

It’s helpful to reflect on how bogus that argument was. Kosovo was part of Serbia, and the fighting in Kosovo didn’t threaten any NATO members. One of the closest NATO members that might have been affected, Greece, didn’t really want to intervene against its historic ally. NATO’s credibility was never at risk. What interventionists did by using this credibility argument was to invent a new political obligation by arbitrarily re-defining NATO’s role in Europe. For the sake of protecting the so-called credibility of NATO, the U.S. and its NATO allies launched an illegal, unprovoked war against another state to take the side of separatists inside that state’s territory. In other words, to save its credibility NATO had to destroy its credibility as a purely defensive alliance. The situation in Libya is very similar, except that instead of separatists the anti-regime forces are rebels that intend to replace him and his government in Tripoli. Needless to say, the U.S. hasn’t the remotest legal pretext or justification to intervene, just as it had no justification for what it did in 1999. No one bothered to pay much attention to the forces we were siding with in Kosovo, and no one seems to be considering what forces the U.S. would be empowering if it intervened in Libya.

The Russians have been quite clear that military action is not acceptable to them, and neither the Poles and the Turks support intervention, so there is no question of a mission authorized by NATO or the U.N. Egypt objects to military action, which is understandable, since it will would be one of the countries most directly affected by an intensifying refugee crisis that military action would inevitably cause. If the U.S. were to take action, it would be done in collusion with a handful of other allies against the wishes of Libya’s neighbors, without support from a significant numbers of its European allies, and contrary to international law. U.S. credibility would hardly be served by once again trashing our national reputation with yet another unilateral, illegal military action. It is not clear how many of the rebels actually welcome intervention and how many reject it. We don’t really understand what is happening in Libya, and it is absolute folly to plunge ahead without becoming much better informed.

Singh identifies another possible consequence of inaction:

As the fighting drags on and the violence deepens, the risk that extremist groups will enter the fray as they have in other conflicts in the region increases as well, which has serious implications for our future relations with whatever Libya that emerges from the fighting.

That’s a possibility, but for all those who imagine how Libya might turn into a “giant Somalia,” it is worth recalling that the state of Somalia today and the problems of disorder and piracy resulting from it are the effects of a major intervention by the Ethiopian army in 2006. Back then, Ethiopia (with Washington’s approval) was trying to dislodge an Islamist group from its stronghold in Mogadishu. They succeeded in the immediate goal, and anarchy and protracted conflict have followed. Somalia was in very bad shape before the invasion, but it has been a disaster afterwards. Failure to think beyond the initial intervention is a recurring problem with pro-war advocates.

In addition to all of the usual difficulties, risks, and pitfalls of military intervention, what is the plan for what comes later? Let’s assume that the operation goes reasonably well and succeeds in deposing Gaddafi. Does U.S. involvement end at that point, and Washington wishes the rebels’ new government good luck as our forces leave the area? Or does the U.S. take on responsibility for post-conflict peacekeeping and reconstruction once Washington has decided to take the rebels’ side in trying to oust Gaddafi? Do the U.N. and AU take over instead? I have not seen anyone give these questions any serious thought.

Another recurring theme in pro-war arguments is how little intervention will cost the U.S. Military action is being sold to the public and the government as something that will not turn into a prolonged mission, but the same people who insist that we get involved will make all of the same arguments against leaving Libya to its own devices after the initial fighting is over. Americans have also become spoiled by two decades of wars in which the U.S. has achieved overwhelming and immediate air superiority, so many people think of air campaigns as low-risk exercises. Libyan air defenses are substantial, and U.S. forces may suffer some casualties and prisoners of war from enforcing even something as “limited” as a no-fly zone.

Advocates of military action are primarily recommending it as a solution to the government’s excesses and crimes, but suppose instead that outside intervention triggers the mass slaughter that the intervention was intended to prevent. What then? Once U.S. forces are committed, it will be virtually impossible politically to halt the intervention, but it is easy to imagine how intervention could worsen the situation and the U.S. would legitimately receive part of the blame for that outcome.