Today, we can hear a chorus demanding intervention in Libya. Many of the reasons are those we’ve grown used to; we heard them all in the long lead-up to Iraq and we’ve been hearing them all over again since uprisings began to spread in the Arab world. But, added to the mix is something new: America must intervene in order to restore its reputation and moral standing. We are A Very Serious Nation, and Very Serious Nations that are not taken seriously, on a moral/military level, do not long retain their status. We must do something, somewhere, but soon—for the sake of our reputation. ~J.L. Wall
Wall makes an interesting and instructive comparison between arguments for intervention in Libya and those made in support of Cast Lead, the Israeli military operation against Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. Maintaining or restoring “credibility” is a common theme in all of these arguments, and as I have noted before it was a significant part of the argument for NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. The trouble with this isn’t just that these campaigns all contributed to the additional loss of credibility for the states and institutions involved, but that this is an incredibly bad reason for taking military action. Short of complete success, any military action is going to do more to tarnish national reputation than bolster it.
The comparison with Kosovo may be the most instructive one for Libya, since NATO intervened in a conflict that was entirely internal, which is what interventionists propose that the U.S. and allies do again. Like Kosovo, all that interventionists are proposing right now is that the U.S. use air power to limit Gaddafi’s military advantage. Back then, McCain was one of the louder voices calling for at least the threat of using ground forces, but today not even McCain proposes something like this. Kerry made a point of rejecting the idea of sending in ground forces in his recent op-ed, because we all understand that it is politically a non-starter with so many American forces remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interventionists aren’t willing to level with the public what their preferred policy goal would actually require, so they are pretending that the first part of a larger intervention is all that the U.S. should do. One reason that Kerry’s position is hard to take seriously is that the mission in Libya he describes would probably be a very long one with goals that U.S. and allied intervention alone couldn’t realize.
Instead of having a much more limited objective of compelling Gaddafi’s forces to leave a certain area within Libya, U.S. and allied forces would presumably continue their no-fly zone for as long as Gaddafi remained in power, and it wouldn’t stop until he stepped down or was overthrown. It took 78 days of bombing to compel Milosevic to order the evacuation of forces from Kosovo, and that was during a campaign in which Serbian forces rarely fought back in order to avoid being destroyed. We would have to be prepared for a possibly much longer commitment against a regime that now has every incentive to fight back and make intervention as dangerous and costly as possible. Once the war for the sake of “credibility” begins, it isn’t going to end until Gaddafi is no longer in power, but the relatively minimal nature of the intervention could allow Gaddafi to hang on for quite a while, which is why the no-fly zone will be just the first in a series of escalations leading to an air campaign and possibly invasion.
Gaddafi has already lost control over eastern Libya, but neither the rebels nor the anti-Gaddafi brigades in the West appeared satisfied with this. Unlike Kosovo, a war against Libya would be waged with the purpose of hastening Gaddafi’s downfall rather than securing the separation of a part of Libya from Tripoli’s control. This is not only a much bigger undertaking than compelling Serb forces to leave Kosovo, but it makes the success of U.S. intervention dependent entirely on the ability of the rebels to defeat Gaddafi’s other forces and/or encourage Gaddafi’s supporters to turn against him. Even most advocates of a no-fly zone aren’t proposing a coordinated campaign together with the rebels, which would require U.S. or allied soldiers to coordinate operations with them, and it’s not clear how this would be accomplished practically if the rebels don’t want any foreign soldiers on Libyan soil. Were such coordination to happen, there’s also no way of knowing whether it would fragment the rebels into different camps:
But others disagree. “We’ll stop fighting the tyrant and shoot the Americans instead,” says a veteran of Libya’s war in Chad, who now mans an old anti-aircraft gun on Benghazi’s corniche. Some Islamist leaders say they may face pressure to fight American troops if they became involved.