international analysis and commentary

The Libyan adventure: still, not a great idea

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Everyone and their brother predicted the end of Gheddafi, banking on the fact that NATO, the greatest alliance in history, would eventually see off this tin-pot dictator. Those in favor and against the war instead parted ways over the central question: “Is this a wise course of action and is it worth it?” Based both upon what we don’t know and, more worryingly, what we do, I think “no” can be the only appropriate answer.

Certainly, we have no idea what sort of government is about to emerge in Libya; what we do know does not exactly inspire confidence. We know the rebels who just inherited Libya are really just a hodgepodge of different militias, even in the more coherent eastern portion of the country. We know that under murky circumstances one group of rebels may well have assassinated Abdel Fattah Younes, their former military chief, a fact that does not bode well for future harmony. We also know the rebel militias in the west, the recent victors in Tripoli, acted largely on their own, and have only the loosest of ties with the National Transitional Council (NTC), until recently holed up in Benghazi.

All of this political vagueness about who we are dealing with, who will be the main players domestically, and who stands a chance of acquiring the vital local legitimacy necessary to make post-Gheddafi Libya work, is hair-raising enough. However, when you factor in what we actually know about the Libyan adventure, I think it little wonder President Barack Obama is doing his best to keep his head down about the whole thing.

The first thing we know as a result of Libya is the true extent of the political and military mess NATO finds itself in. It took the alliance six months and 17,000 air sorties to stomp out a thuggish but comically inept developing world dictator. That’s hardly a reason for victory parades. For the first time in NATO’s history, after the initial few weeks of bombing, America took a back seat, informally handing over control of the mission to France and Britain.

This unusual arrangement came about due to the White House’s acknowledgement that no primary American interests were at stake in Libya, a fact then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made explicitly clear. The only way for America to act was in a supporting rather than leading role.

This newfound flexibility is all well and good, and vitally necessary if NATO is to remake itself into an effective alliance in the new multipolar era, where interests within the alliance will vary even more than they did during the Cold War. However, that back seat only makes sense if: A) the other allies are able to muster enough force to make the mission work. B) America still has some significant if not overwhelming interests at stake in any given intervention, enabling the President to sell the limited intervention to the American people. Libya easily fails on both counts.

The first calculation does not pass the laugh test. For before very long, both the Cameron and Sarkozy governments found that they did not have enough precision-guided munitions to decisively defeat Gheddafi. Also, without America’s overwhelmingly preponderant contribution regarding reconnaissance, intelligence and refueling, the intervention would have ground to an inglorious halt. This is hardly the handover of military control that – for very different reasons – both President Sarkozy and President Obama hoped for.

Even more galling is that Britain and France are the only two major non-American NATO players that can operate full spectrum operations; everyone else does (often well) limited things, counting on the totality of the alliance to fill in their specific blanks. Now that France and Britain have shown themselves to be more limited in capability than thought, what hope is there for European defense in general? 

What the Libyan adventure did damningly point out was how far behind the military curve the rest of the alliance actually is. Since 9/11, American military spending has more than doubled, with the rest of NATO seeing its defense budget decrease on average by 15%. US military spending is three times that of the others put together. This gaping chasm is hardly the basis for a stable alliance. Given the tremendous economic peril affecting both sides of the Atlantic, it is farcical to think a hard-pressed Europe will do much of anything to narrow the gap. Instead, as the example of Britain makes clear, sweeping defense cuts are the order of the day. How much longer is a credit-downgraded America going to let its allies free ride off its military expenditure?

For even in America, the defense budget is certainly past its zenith. As an old Washington hand, my friends in both parties tell me that actual defense cuts over the next decade are likely to total between $600 billion-$900 billion. The party is definitely over.

So an America with less wherewithal will look for more help to a Europe that will do even less militarily than now. If this military and political trajectory plays out, the death of the alliance cannot be that far away.

The economic crisis puts paid to the second calculation as well. From now on foreign policy elites used to lazily explaining how intervening in Haiti, Somalia and Libya is somehow in the American interest, will have to be a lot more rigorous in their argumentation. As such, second order interests will be a very hard sell in terms of rallying American support for military missions abroad; the days of wars of choice are ending.

A few numbers to make it clear how bad America is economically hurting: The unemployment rate of 9% is misleading; the real number is around 16% when the underemployed and those so discouraged they have given up looking for work are added to the mix. According to the IMF, the national debt at the federal, state and local levels of government will stand at 97.6% of GDP at the end of August 2011. American home values are worth one-third less than they were just five years ago. This is the third straight year of more than $1 trillion in federal deficits; under President Obama the debt has already risen by $4 trillion. This is not a country that can afford to fight any more wars for secondary interests.

All this we know, and all this dooms the Libyan adventure – far from being a template for how the alliance will work in the future – to instead being the swan song for Western military interventions for anything less than primary interests. What we know dooms the entire present Western foreign policy elite to irrelevance unless old dogs can quickly learn very new tricks; first among these is how to actually tailor a foreign policy coat that is cut from the cloth of the objective political and economic power we actually possess in this new world. Based on what we know, Libya is an end, not a beginning.