Yesterday, the United Nations approved airstrikes on Qaddafi’s forces in Libya. The resolution apparently passed with ten votes, including the United States with abstentions from Russia, China, Germany, Brazil, and India.
Now American forces may be fighting a third war in a third Muslim country.
What did Qaddafi do to deserve such condemnation and a potential attack from American forces? He fought for his own survival against an unnamed, unidentified, amorphous force of rebels who want to overthrow him from power. There is no doubt that he has been ruthless and brutal, and my sympathies go out to the people who have died in the conflict. However, America has finite resources that it should only expend when there are clear threats to its vital interests. Immersing itself into the middle of a country’s civil war makes little sense.
Qaddafi is certainly a “mad dog”, who has a demonstrated capacity for harming Americans with his state-sponsored terrorist attacks in the 1980s. That said, President Reagan retaliated for these acts and even bombed Qaddafi’s home and killed members of his family.
Any serious national security analyst from the realist school of international relations would ask themselves: How is bombing Qaddafi in America’s vital interests?
Libya is no longer a threat to the United States. In fact, President Bush’s invasion of Iraq convinced Qaddafi to come clean on his weapons of mass destruction. Qaddafi has also been cooperative in the war on terror. After all, he too faces some internal threats from al Qaeda affiliates.
What about oil?
In 2009, Libya accounted for 0.18 percent of American crude oil imports. Globally, Libyan oil accounted for about 1.8 million barrels per day of crude oil production in 2010 and the country has the largest crude oil reserves in Africa at 46.4 billion barrels. That said, global spare production capacity is about 5 million barrels per day, which means that other members of OPEC can produce more in the short-term to fill Libya’s gap.
Libya does have a marginal impact on crude oil prices globally, but the United States receives very little of its oil from Libya. The most effective way to reduce oil price volatility is for the conflict to end. Now that Qaddafi has the upper hand, the United States attacking his forces using air power will only serve to prolong the conflict and increase uncertainty. So long as this uncertainty continues, oil prices will likely remain high.
So again, how does helping extend a period of higher oil prices serve American vital interests?
The United States’ actions in the Libyan conflict are also inconsistent with its broader nuclear non-proliferation goals. How does attacking a dictator who recently cooperated with the United States by disclosing his nuclear weapons program, help America’s broader non-proliferation effort? For instance, will it be any easier to convince the Iranians or the North Koreans to give up their nuclear ambitions if the United States subsequently bombs one of the few countries, who has voluntarily disclosed its program to the United States?
Here is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s view of why America should intervene:
“There is no good choice here. If you don’t get him out and if you don’t support the opposition and he stays in power, there’s no telling what he will do.”
I disagree. By extending aid to the rebels, whom Qaddafi has almost completely routed, the international community artificially extends a conflict that would likely have ended within the next month or so.
Another potential unintended consequence of intervening in Libya is that it signals to others that they can now reasonably expect to receive international support if they rise up against their own monarchies.
Imagine if the Saudis take heart and decide to attempt to overthrow the House of Saud. Would that be good for American interests? Would it be good for the global economy?
Another important consideration is what are the United States’ military and political objectives? Does the United States expect Qaddafi to blink and abdicate his position as Libya’s leader? How long did the United States’ no-fly zone last in Iraq? Did it work? What if Qaddafi shoots down an American aircraft or takes American hostages? What if he retaliates with terrorist attacks? What if air power alone fails to achieve these objectives? What is America’s strategy for an escalation of the conflict? What is America’s exit strategy?
The bottom line is that it does not seem that the Obama administration has carefully thought through many of these considerations. Its heart is certainly in the right place, but hope is not a method.
The United States is potentially setting a bad precedent for intervention in the region that could ultimately result in an outcome that harms American interests. We should stay out of Libya’s business.