Pitfalls Ahead in NATO’s Libya Victory

 Washington pundits – from neoconservatives through progressives – are celebrating the NATO-backed ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi as a worthy use of the West’s military capabilities. But the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland sees dangerous pitfalls ahead, both in Libya and elsewhere.

By Ivan Eland 

The conventional wisdom is that U.S.-led NATO vanquished the ruthless and despotic Muammar Gaddafi. And that is largely what happened.

Gaddafi had one of the worst human rights records on the planet, was autocratic, and was even downright bizarre at times. Moreover, although the U.S. pretended to play only a limited, background role in NATO’s effort in Libya, its initial suppression of Libyan air defenses and its surveillance and communication technology played a key role in bringing down the Gaddafi regime.

In fact, the Libyan conflict demonstrates that the U.S. is perfecting the technique of using ragtag local ground forces to fix enemy regime forces in place so that its air power can pummel them into sawdust.

Previously, the United States had demonstrated this capability using the Kosovo Liberation Army to wrest Kosovo from Serbia in 1999 and using the Northern Alliance to take over Afghanistan after 9/11.

The successful invasion of Iraq also was conducted using smaller quantities of forces on the ground — this time U.S. forces — in combination with the employment of massive U.S. air power. This model seems to promise winning brushfire wars without much cost in either blood or treasure (at least American).

Of course, the quagmires that Afghanistan and Iraq have become should indicate that, in many cases, this model is flawed. Taking over the country is one thing and ruling it is quite another.

As with those two conflicts, if guerrilla war, tribal civil war, or general chaos results in Libya, the world will look to NATO to solve the problem. Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Rule” — “if you break it, you’ve bought it” — is a truism in foreign policy circles but is nevertheless regularly ignored.

In Libya, another way to put it is: What has NATO won?

Progressive administration apologists, making a not-so-odd alliance with neoconservatives, have taken to the airwaves touting the many Libyan lives saved and the brutal dictator toppled.

Of course, the former was just theoretical — Gaddafi had made bombastic threats before that were never carried out — and was a fig leaf for the not-so-hidden real purpose all along: taking advantage of an internal Libyan uprising against Gaddafi to get rid of the tyrant while the getting was good.

Gaddafi was demonized by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s (even though Reagan started the long dustup by purposefully provoking Gaddafi in 1981 with U.S. naval power off the Libyan coast), much as Saddam Hussein was by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

Once such dictators have been upgraded into the “evil incarnate” caricature (the equally despotic Saudi regime has not transitioned into this category because it is the world’s most important oil producer), pressure builds among American officials, the media and the pundits for regime change.

Also, those progressive and neoconservative pundits have crowed about how cheap the Libyan intervention was in casualties and money. So far, compared to the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, I guess they have a point.

But as the famous baseball player and coach Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” And these brushfire conflicts never seem to be over.

Now that the U.S. and NATO have taken such a big stake in Libya’s outcome, money and even casualties could be required for any needed ground force to prevent chaos or civil war or just to keep the country stable.

Even if no ground force is needed, money will be needed to help rebuild the country and ensure its future stability.

With the U.S. in dire economic and fiscal straits — record federal budget deficits and more than $14 trillion in national debt — and two other costly wars still ongoing, America cannot even afford a cheap war. If you are broke, you shouldn’t just eat at TGI Friday’s instead of an expensive restaurant; you need to eat at home.

Worst of all, we don’t really know what will come next in Libya. In retrospect, Gaddafi may look much better if radical anti-U.S. Islamists eventually take over the country.

The U.S. has seemed to be so worried about this outcome in Syria that, up until recently, it was reluctant to call for the ouster of the equally brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The same worry should have applied to Libya.

The problem with wars, even ones with laudable goals, is that the unintended consequences are usually severe. Recalling that U.S. support of Islamist rebels in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union morphed into the worst foreign threat to American soil since the War of 1812 should have given the United States some pause in getting involved in the Libyan conflict. It didn’t.

Yet the Libyan conflict could produce equally nasty outcomes. Gaddafi was reported to have stockpiled 20,000 man-portable anti-aircraft weapons, which could be used by terrorists to shoot down commercial airliners. Many of these weapons have gone missing in Libya, with their wooden cases empty.

Andrew J. Shapiro, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, has said that these unsecured missiles in Libya are “one of the things that keep me up at night.”

The president of Chad and officials in Algeria, whose countries neighbor Libya, have said that some of those missiles have traveled over their borders to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which calls North Africa home.

Finally, during the years before his downfall, Gaddafi had settled his differences with the West, giving up his nuclear weapons program and paying victims of Libyan-sponsored terror attacks in the 1980s.

Like the lesson that nuclear aspirants (for example, Iran) learned from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — countries on the outs with the U.S. without nuclear arms don’t get any respect from the American superpower — the toppling of a nuclear-disarmed Gaddafi gives them little incentive to give up such weapons programs and every incentive to accelerate them.

So perhaps the removal of Gaddafi in Libya is not as much of a triumph as it first appears.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has 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. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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6 comments on “Pitfalls Ahead in NATO’s Libya Victory

  1. Hello,
    I don’t agree that the evil ‘caricature’ (is it really?) part played a role in that welcomed intervention. Gaddafi was until a few months back rather on a course toward a half-hearten normalization -like Assad BTW- with Western powers, most of them NATO members, and the so-called international community (not counting the usual bribed African heads of States). It would have certainly stayed that way until the long awaited Arab Spring: while most Western leaders watched half shamefully from the sideways -the regimes were then considered “West friendly” and bankrolled- the overthrowing of autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, but also the mass demonstrations in Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Algeria, etc, it forced them -Sarkozy, Cameron, Clinton rather than Obama- to acknowledge the historical turn of events, and following an unusual example of the UN will -when properly backed- in Cote d’Ivoire, it was nearly impossible for them to let Gaddafi clearly slaughter en mass at the doorsteps of Europe, and by doing to give a rather awful example on how to crush these democratic uprisings emerging all over the Middle-east and North Africa.

    I am glad the UN intervened like he has done in Cote d’Ivoire/Ivory Coast, same thing with Gaddafi. Now if it wasn’t branded as a ‘NATO only’ operation it would have been even better, and in fine truer (Qatar, Arab League, etc).

  2. Ethan Allen on said:

    While it can be honestly conceded that Dr. Eland’s missive is spiced with some interesting and commonly understood points of concern regarding the future of Libya and the scope of the intervention into it’s civil war, the piece seems to have been carefully crafted to promote a variation of the Libertarian anti-government meme which currently dominates conservative propaganda and historical revisionism.

    One important factual point that seems strangely unmentioned in this narrative, by this highly credentialed “political analyst”, is that it is the Libyan people who both initiated and implemented their civil war; and the assistance they garnered from the NATO alliance, with the universal blessings of the United Nations, was necessary, almost exclusively, because it was the same NATO nations that supplied Gaddafi’s criminal regime with the advanced weapons and technology that presented an overwhelming obstacle to their possible success. Surely such a serious true believer in liberty and justice would not deny that the Libyan “rag-tag” rabble are any less deserving of our support in their quest for liberty from dictatorial oppression than our forbears were.

    The conflation of the Libyan civil war with the neoconservative/neoliberal “preventative” interventions in Iraq and others is beyond absurd, and bespeaks nothing more than polemic rhetorical desperation.

    Regarding conflation and polemic rhetoric, it would be instructive to know what factual reasoning is employed by the author in conflating Progressive and NeoConservative actions and ideals on three separate occasions in this brief synopsis. (see quoted excerpts below)

    “Washington pundits – from neoconservatives through progressives – are celebrating….”

    “Progressive administration apologists, making a not-so-odd alliance with neoconservatives….”

    “Also, those progressive and neoconservative pundits have crowed about how cheap the Libyan intervention was in casualties and money.”

    One certainly can not fault any Libertarian for trying to distance himself from the current conventional wisdom that Libertarian and Conservative philosophy are political bedfellows; but to float the canard that Progressives are in league with NeoConservatives in order to bolster the purity of Libertarian thought is polemic revisionist nonsense.

  3. Jamil Ben J. on said:

    Africans do not understand geopolitics despite the fact that they’ve been colonized and neo-colonized.
    They really believe in the NATO propaganda about human rights protection. The NATO has 5 key goals for being in Libya:

    1- Install puppets in power
    2 – Use their new puppets to secure oil for Europe (45 billion barrels proven reserves)
    3 – Create Military bases for AFRICOM (US command center is currently in Germany because of the opposition from African presidents who have feared being the new Saddam Husseins)
    4- Recognize Israel (and the Bengazi team already sent a French envoy to Israel months ago to meet the PM)
    5- Sell weapons to the new puppets.

    That’s all.

    It’s great to feel good after 42 years of dictatorship but Libyans should NOT forget that those countries bombing Libya today are the ones that helped the dictator oppress them in the first place – He was in France just a couple of years ago to buy more weapons from Sarkozy and we all saw him with Tony Blair in his tent may times…

  4. Our greed sets up our desire to overlook history. Our trust in technology sets us up to ignore the lessons of history.

  5. ransford eliot ghartey on said:

    i sincerely agree with you and hope this would strengthen countries like Iran and N. Korea to still engage their quest for nuclear power.US and its allies are abusing their power in the security council. Even in international arm conflicts the rebels assumed combatant status and they need not be protected by Nato.
    it seems it only Africa which is the target of the west because of their wealth.While AU was advocating for political solution,UK, USA,and France choose the path of war.We should look at Irag and Afganistan and ask our self if the people are better off than in the days before the invasions.
    sir, i wish to learn more from you.
    hope to hear from you.

  6. Am waiting for that “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner to be unfurled.