Libya and Escalation

Ross Douhat makes the point far better than me: history suggests the volatility of war and its tendency towards escalation.

A widely touted no-fly zone over Libya would probably not be a surgical intervention that would trigger the overthrow of Gaddafi, but the first step towards entanglement, further escalation, and deeper conflict:

Advocates of a Libyan intervention don’t seem to have internalized these lessons. They have rallied around a no-flight zone as their Plan A for toppling Qaddafi, but most military analysts seem to think that it will fail to do the job, and there’s no consensus on Plan B. Would we escalate to air strikes? Arm the rebels? Sit back and let Qaddafi claim to have outlasted us?

If we did supply the rebels, who exactly would be receiving our money and munitions? Libya’s internal politics are opaque, to put it mildly. But here’s one disquieting data point, courtesy of the Center for a New American Security’s : Eastern Libya, the locus of the rebellion, sent more foreign fighters per capita to join the Iraqi insurgency than any other region in the Arab world.

And if the civil war dragged on, what then? Twice in the last two decades, in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, the United States has helped impose a no-flight zone. In both cases, it was just a stepping-stone to further escalation: bombing campaigns, invasion, occupation and nation-building.

None of this means that an intervention is never the wisest course of action. But the strategic logic needs to be compelling, the threat to our national interest obvious, the case for war airtight.

Personally, I’m still thinking about the arguments for and against. The Observer reminds us that all wars are a bit different and that we must judge circumstances on their merits rather than as the sum of all fears.

That has to be balanced against the classical conception of war. Its purpose may be to serve policy. But its nature is to serve itself.

Two further points:

The Observer asks us also to believe that an armed intervention into Libya could not arouse militant Islamists because many Arabs, and the Arab League, sympathise with it. Alas, they also sympathised with our intervention in the Gulf in 1991, to liberate an Islamic majority people from an invading despot. Doing so resulted in US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia – the main galvanising political event for Osama Bin Laden in his jihad against America. Intervening in Libya will save Muslims, but it will also kill them, and unjust or not, that will help mobilise jihadis. No matter how noble our intentions, wars in the Islamic world tend to breed Islamist retaliation. Fact.

Secondly, those who lament that the US was foolish enough to bankroll and arm its future jihadi enemies in the Soviet-Afghan war might pause to notice a similar problem here. Gaddafi’s enemies are not all Libyan versions of Ohio Republicans. Supporting them may have future blowback as well.

If we do take this step, lets know what we are doing, and what it costs. Diplomatically innocent moral outrage is for children. Prudent thinking about dilemmas is for adults.

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