For a people who have been under the thumb of a dictator for over four decades, Libyans sure do make up for lost time. In the course of just a couple weeks, the rebels in Libya have done much to end Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year rule. They have gained effective control, in terms of area, of most of the country, leaving the old regime buttoned up in Tripoli and a few surrounding areas.
And yet, there is only so much that a motley collection of civilians can do in terms of warfighting. Fortunately for the rebels, Gadhafi’s aversion to large, organized, armed institutions that could challenge his rule or refuse his orders means that the Libyan regime has little in the way of a conventional military. Unfortunately, nothing has stopped Gadhafi from hiring an army’s worth of foreign mercenaries to hole up in the capital. Without outside intervention, we are looking at a protracted civil war.
There are three reasons why the United States should militarily intervene on behalf of the Libyan people.
Firstly, regime change in Libya is, in and of itself, a good thing for the United States. In Egypt, pundits hemmed and hawed over the trade-offs between encouraging democracy and losing a useful ally. Here, there is no trade-off; Gadhafi has been an enemy of ours for most of his reign, and a democratic Libya is more likely to work with the U.S. than Gadhafi ever will be. Resolution of the situation will improve the security of neighboring friendly states like Tunisia and Egypt, which are not currently well-positioned to handle foreign crises. It will mean less disruption to the global oil market, which is roiling with uncertainty.
Secondly, taking action against Gadhafi will incentivize other regimes to reform their way out of trouble rather than rely upon brute force to stay in power. In the case of Gadhafi, it was a foregone conclusion that he would choose a crackdown to maintain his rule. But many other dictators exist at the margin; if confronted with unrest, they will weigh the pros and cons of conceding reforms versus spilling blood in the streets. Their prediction of how America and other foreign powers respond to a crackdown is an important component of their calculation. Just as it is with big banks, big dictators must know that they are not too big to fail. By taking a strong stance now, the United States can prevent future violence elsewhere and encourage democratization in the region.
Lastly, if Libya is allowed to fester, it is likely to become a failed state and a haven for terrorists. Gadhafi has brought in foreign mercenaries to quell the protest-cum-rebellion that is underway. The danger if the conflict continues is that the rebels will do the same. America may hesitate to intervene, but al Qaeda will not — if the rebels cannot win outright victory, al Qaeda will be there to offer fighters in exchange for a foothold in the new movement. This is al Qaeda at its strongest, offering jihadists for hire and co-opting legitimate movements to lend credence to their own broken ideology. By intervening, the U.S. can lock al Qaeda out of a potential new front.
We should not low-ball the difficulty of taking action in Libya. A simple no-fly zone or pure air campaign is unlikely to oust Gadhafi from power, and ultimately American ground troops may be necessary. But we also should not pretend that taking action in Libya will force us down some slippery slope into intervention across the globe. Libya is low-hanging fruit, an oil-rich state run by an unstable anti-American dictator that is poised to achieve its own grassroots democratic revolution. There is no reason for our president to be dragging his feet.