With the unfolding of a civil war in Libya — one that is pathetically unbalanced between the arms-bearing pro-Gaddafi forces and the civilian rebels — what action will the international community take? France has officially recognized the Transitional National Council (TNC) as the legitimate government of Libya, and the Arab League countries have called for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya. It is America’s turn now, and Obama’s excuses for inaction no longer suffice, so America is finally going to make a move — and we’re going to do it wrong.
The last time Gaddafi was subject to sanctions was in 1992 over the Lockerbie bombing, and it took him seven years to cooperate to the extent required for the lifting of the sanctions; at the rate civilians in Libya are being killed today, in seven years about four percent of Libya’s population would be dead. This time around, however, the U.S. has frozen $32 billion in Libyan government assets — in addition to sanctions. Although these combined approaches are more effective, they’re hardly enough.
It is therefore appropriate that Obama announced the appointment of a special U.S. representative to Libya’s rebel leaders a day after France became the first nation to recognize the Libyan rebel leadership. The U.S. also started to shut down the Libyan embassy in Washington; both are steps toward the United States’ formally cutting diplomatic ties with the Gaddafi government and officially recognizing the TNC. And this is the first mistake made by the United States: we are still taking the first steps towards this potentially game-changing and economically inexpensive move of recognizing the opposition, instead of leading it.
The second and far bigger mistake the United States is going to make is the establishment of a no-fly zone.
Why it’s a mistake
A no-fly zone over Libya is an excellent idea. Gaddafi’s military has the equipment required to launch air attacks, and the no-fly zone would protect the civilian protestors from the equipment being used against them. It is, however, not an excellent idea for the United States to be the one to establish the no-fly zone.
A no-fly zone over Libya could cost from $25 million to $300 million a week, depending on how much air space it would cover. This figure reflects only the maintenance cost and does not include the one-time cost of taking out Libya’s air defense systems, which is required to set up such a no-fly zone; that operation alone is estimated to cost from $500 million to $1 billion. More importantly, the imposition of a no-fly zone is tantamount to a declaration of war — one that Gaddafi has warned he will fight. The cost of a full-fledged war on Libya is a lot more than $300 million a week.
The United States is in the middle of two wars. Iraq and Afghanistan have cost us more than $1 trillion to date, and we are far from finished with them. These wars have been an enormous burden on America’s already-hurting economy. America’s fiscal health is abysmal, and we should not be spending any more money on wars we cannot afford to fight.
Why it’s going to be made
Of the permanent member states of the U.N. Security Council, France and the U.K. support the establishment of a no-fly zone, while Russia and China oppose it. The U.S., in its characteristic manner, has not yet taken a clear stand. These deliberations moved forward on Saturday when the Arab League, an important party in this decision, called on the Security Council to establish a no-fly zone.
The U.S. should support the establishment of a no-fly zone, since it’s an excellent idea. If that happens, we then have two choices for our involvement in its implementation: first, we could let France or the U.K. take the lead on this one. The United States would be a significant contributor — both monetarily and in equipment — but we would not be the ringmaster as we were in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second option is to lead.
The United States is going to choose option two because we if we don’t, we may lose out on “getting with” the new regime that will govern Libya and, more importantly, it could be a blow to our image as a world leader. The first concern is easily addressed by recognizing that the U.S. can still play a leading role in the aftermath of the intervention, a far less costly option. The second concern is justified but invalid; if the U.S. splits the “glory” of leading this particular military endeavor with a few other countries, it is not going to affect how much the U.S. pays the U.N. or NATO, nor is it going to affect the other criteria that make the U.S. the world’s only superpower.
If the United States does continue to grow its vast federal deficit and national debt by engaging in trillion-dollar wars, however, we are in danger of losing our economic power, and consequently our military and political power. With the loss of three of the four axes of power, we will lose superpower status.
To maintain our image as a superpower, the United States is going to lead the intervention in Libya, a move that will cost us billions of dollars and, ironically, maybe our “superpowerdom.”