PARIS — April 3, 2011 – When this crisis in Libya is over, there must be a serious debate about how the United States managed to get itself into the position that it is in today. Why are we playing the leading role in a military operation against a country which presents no vital threat to our interests? Why is NATO involved? Why did the President declare that Gadhafi must go? How are we to bring about this regime change? And what is to come after it?
Of course, it could all end happily, with Gadhafi stepping down and the rebels turning out to be democrats who then proceed to build a stable democracy. But what if Gadhafi, having nothing to lose, proves tenacious? How long can we continue to bomb and strafe? And even if he falls, what will we do if the rebels decide to do to Gadhafi loyalists what Gadhafi would have done to them? What if, instead of a democracy, much to our chagrin, another strongman takes power?
But now is perhaps the wrong time to consider these questions. They should have been considered before the President decided to topple Gadhafi. Now, we are bodily involved, and withdrawal is out of the question.
In the past, I took a stance against a military intervention, against toppling Gadhafi, and against using NATO. Nearly all of the measures that I believed to be mistaken have been taken. Had we limited our actions to intelligence and logistics support and had we not demanded that Gadhafi step down, it would have been possible to aim for a partition of Libya as I described in a previous article. That option is now impossible.
The United States has submitted once again to its reflexive tendency to use NATO in any situation where a military solution is required. NATO is a forum in which the United States plays a dominant role, and a semblance of multilateralism and legitimacy is conferred on the military action in which it is used. But NATO is also 28 countries, all of whom have a say and a veto. Small European countries dare not speak out against what we are doing, but what about Turkey, a much more confident player, or Germany?
Moreover, a NATO mission is automatically an American one, and a loss for NATO is also an American loss. That is why, in a previous article, I argued for using the French proposal – a council of ministers – instead of using NATO and risking its prestige, and our own, in a mission whose rewards can only be miniscule in value. A council of ministers would have included the most powerful nations in the present coalition, and responsibility for the result would have been shared between them. But true to form, America stubbornly insisted on using NATO, and now the French, having lost the chance to take the leading role, may devote their energies to damage control, to handing off to the Americans the responsibility (and the blame) for the result, which even the most optimistic among us fear will be messy.
There is no hiding the fact that the United States has taken a substantial part of the responsibility for this operation. The majority of the Tomahawk missiles have been fired by us. Our planes are in the air attacking Gadhafi loyalists.
That all this was done with the sanction of the United Nations does not change the fact that American arms have been used, the American President has spoken, and American prestige is at stake.
Moreover, the happenings in Syria make Libya an even more urgent matter. If Bashar al-Assad survives the current uprising, it becomes ever more important that Gadhafi be toppled; for if Gadhafi survives, then we are indicating that only those dictators who have American blood on their hands will survive our fury, and this we cannot allow.
Once a great power makes its will public and takes actions to fulfill it, it cannot simply hand off the responsibility to some nebulous grouping of nations. Faced with a choice between disgrace and danger, I see no option but to choose the latter.
Benjamin Ra is a graduate student in International Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. American foreign policy is his main interest. Read more of Benjamin’s writing in A Word on the National Interest in the Communities at the Washington Times.
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