BOSTON — To intervene in Libya, or not to intervene? That is the question.
No doubt U.S. President Barack Obama is suffering the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” He needs another war in a Muslim country like the proverbial hole in the head. But with oil prices climbing, and a humanitarian crisis looming, Obama is being pressured to stop Muammar Gaddafi’s efforts to put the brakes on the new "Arab Awakening" that is sweeping the Arab world.
The American right is all for intervention, led by that dynamic duo of hawkish inclinations, senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain. The Wall Street Journal is calling Obama a sissy. Even Sen. John Kerry, often Obama’s point man on dealing with delicate situations, is edging toward intervention.
In Europe, the ever-faithful British are willing to chip in on a no fly zone. France, too, seems to be edging that way. The others are not too sure, and Turkey is against it. But Europe is far more dependent on Libya for energy supplies than the United States.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has put his marker down firmly against intervention. He has made it clear that a no fly zone would be tantamount to an act of war. The military is very uncomfortable with the proposition too, being stretched as it is in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
American history is full of interventions in civil wars and revolutions, often ending up on the losing side. The United States sent an expeditionary force to Russia in 1918, along with many other nations, in order to “strangle this infant Bolshevism in the cradle," as Winston Churchill put it. The intervention had little effect, and the Red Army won the ensuing civil war.
The United States sent tons of guns and ammunition, along with American military advisers, aircraft and pilots — but not ground troops — to help Chiang Khai-shek’s Nationalists defeat Mao Tse-tung’s Communists in the late 1940s. The Communists won that civil war too, and the right wing castigated U.S. President Harry Truman for having “lost China,” as if China was ever ours to lose.
Gen. David Barr, of America’s military mission in China, cabled a report to Washington saying: “No battle has been lost since my arrival due to the lack of ammunition or equipment.” The Nationalists’ “debacle,” in Barr’s opinion, was due to poor leadership, and other “morale-destroying factors” that led to a “complete loss of the will to fight;" factors that included “widespread corruption, dishonesty” and lack of moral courage.
You could argue that our intervention in Korea, a civil war of sorts, was a success because we stopped the Communists from re-uniting Korea on their terms. We failed to unite the country on our terms, so a return to the status quo is looked upon as a draw.
A replay of the China debacle came in Vietnam, however, where we first sent advisers, but then ground troops, to intervene against Communism in another civil war. Our side lost again, and the replay of what went wrong in Vietnam sounded exactly like Gen. Barr’s critique of the China operation. And the American right, as in China, believes we could have won if we had just done a bit more.
For the last 10 years we have been bogged down after intervening in an Afghan civil war, and, although the jury is still out on what will be the outcome, frustrated American diplomats and officers will repeat to you Gen. Barr’s critique on what is wrong with the Afghans we are backing.
But no one is talking about sending ground troops to Libya, you will say. It would be just a surgical no fly zone. Yes, but as Gates is trying to say, surgery can be messy.
The only war won by airpower in history was President Clinton’s air campaign against Serbia in response to ethnic cleansing and a humanitarian crisis in Kosovo: No military occupation, no loss of American lives.
And weren’t we morally responsible for Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of the Shia uprising, following the liberation in Kuwait? After all, President George H.W. Bush had urged the Iraqis to rise up and “take matters into their own hands,” but our failure to provide a no fly zone against attack helicopters proved fatal.
And this time we are not backing the status quo, but the rebels who shout pro-democracy slogans and are begging for help. Could we sit on our hands in a civil war between good and evil?
Of course there is no guarantee that a no fly zone would succeed against Gaddafi. Air power may not play a crucial role in Libya. And moral clarity got us into a lot of trouble during George W. Bush’s administration.
Secondly, we armed the mujahedeen against the Russians in Afghanistan once, and the blow back from that operation gave us Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
The greatest reason for caution, in my book, is that once you intervene on one side or another you can end up owning it. And so far, the new Arab awakening has been an Arab enterprise, unburdened by interference from either the West or Muslim extremism. Another American war in a Muslim country would almost certainly change that equation.