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Another Imperial Quagmire?

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Joe Liebermanby Ivan Eland

Unbelievably, after experiencing 10 years of quagmire in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American foreign policy establishment is now clamoring for the institution of a no-fly zone in Libya. Luminaries on both the Left and the Right have endorsed the concept: for example, Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain. Even though the U.S. military would have to first attack Libyan radars, air defenses, runways, aircraft, and command, control, and communication facilities, John Kerry argued that a no-fly zone was not a military operation. Traditionally, the foreign policy elites of declining empires have never accepted the need to retrench overseas before it was too late. The U.S. establishment hasn’t either.

With whopping budget deficits of more than $1 trillion per year, a national debt of more than $14 trillion, and the U.S. military already overstretched by two drawn-out occupations, one would think some sort of “Vietnam Syndrome” would have set in. Although some pundits on the Left (Maureen Dowd) and the Right (George Will) have cautioned against a no-fly zone, most foreign policy luminaries have reflexively supported it.

Yet even if one disregards the cost in money, military readiness for other missions, and potentially even lives, such intervention into the affairs of a sovereign nation has drawbacks. In the case of Libya, we could start off with the simple fact that the country is not strategic to the United States. Libya does produce oil, but a reduction of its production because of internal conflict will merely increase the price of the commodity, thus providing monetary incentives for other oil producers to pump more oil in compensation. Second, aiding the Libyan rebels with a no-fly zone may embolden the opposition in other nations to revolt, thinking they can also get U.S. military help. Third, selling weapons to an opposition that the United States knows little about could be dangerous; for example, U.S. assistance to the Afghan Islamist fighters battling the Soviet Union inadvertently helped create the only threat to U.S. territory since the War of 1812—al-Qaeda. Fourth, attacking a third Muslim country would make the United States even more unpopular in the Islamic world, thus increasing blowback Islamist terrorism against U.S. targets. And finally, the no-fly zones in Iraq and the Balkans eventually led to deeper involvement there, raising the possibility that taking over Libyan airspace to implement a no-fly zone could enmesh the United States in another quagmire in an Islamic country.

Which brings us to whether a no-fly zone would even do much good in Libya. Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi could still use his superiority in tanks, artillery, and other ground forces to gain advantage over the poorly armed and trained rebels. If the no-fly zone failed to end Gadhafi’s offensive, pressure would then likely build for the U.S. to attack Libyan ground forces directly, thus commencing interventionist quagmire number three.

But what about the vast accomplishments of interventionist quagmires numbers one (Afghanistan) and number two (Iraq)? As the U.S. gets ready to withdraw its remaining forces by the end of the year, Iraq is trending toward autocracy, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki running the armed forces and national police himself, closing down political parties that organized demonstrations, killing protesters, and gaining control over the previously independent central bank, the election commission, and the agency that investigates corruption. Such consolidation of power under an Arab Shi’ite prime minister could very well result in a backlash among Kurds and Sunnis, thus rekindling the civil war.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the rosy picture painted by Gen. David Petraeus, unquestioned by the American media, has always differed from the more ominous view of the U.S. intelligence community. The U.S. military is the best in the world and can cause the ragtag Taliban to retreat from wherever it chooses to clear and hold, thus the rosy picture of U.S. gains in territory at Taliban expense. Yet, if U.S. forces are ever to draw down in significant quantities, the ground gained will have to be turned over to the Afghan government, with security provided by the country’s army and police. The Afghan government is one of the most corrupt in the world, and the country’s army and police, despite years of training, are a joke.

Meanwhile, the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and drone attacks against Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan are making new enemies. The Pakistani Taliban, which previously focused its efforts against the Pakistani government, is now sending suicide bombers to Times Square. Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamist group originally organized by U.S.-backed Pakistani intelligence to battle the Soviets in Afghanistan, is now transitioning from attacking the Indians in Kashmir to attacking European and American targets, including U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Thus, honestly examining the failures of U.S. intervention elsewhere should give the American foreign policy elite some pause before pulling the trigger again in Libya. Alas, American imperial urges die hard. Given such continued interventionism, however, the overextended American Empire could die quite easily.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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