The question of international intervention in Libya has, for perhaps the first time since the height of the Bush administration, placed some of the most well-respected U.S. foreign policy thought leaders on opposite sides of a debate over new, proactive military engagement in the Islamic World. On one side, those like Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation have argued that military intervention in Libya brings with it too many unknowns, will serve to place focus on foreign governments and forces instead of the Libyans themselves, and will leave Western nations responsible for another destabilized Arab nation. On the other side, Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, recently of the State Department and currently of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, has argued that standing by while Gaddafi brutalizes his own people is not only morally wrong, but will serve to encourage other regimes to defy the international community. These foreign policy scholars, and many of those who agree with them, are serious, intellectual and pragmatic thinkers, not just some talking heads on cable news.
In a piece I wrote almost a month ago for The Huffington Post, I criticized Paul Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives who were among the first to suggest intervention in Libya in the forms of a no-fly zone, arms shipments to rebel forces and other measures. Now, as I did then, I continue to believe that foreign military intervention in Libya in all but the best of all possible worlds stands a good chance of costing much more than it gains, especially in the long run.
The UN resolution authorizing "all necessary measures" to curtail Gaddafi's ability to act against his own people is, in the short run, the expected moral and emotional response to the situation on the ground in Libya. Strategically and in commitments of military resources however, it's the long run that's important, as was argued before yesterday's UN vote by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Said Westerwelle, "Your own instinct is to say, 'We have to do something.' But military intervention is to take part in a civil war that could go on for a long time." To intervene is to take responsibility not only for engaging and ultimately defeating Gaddafi, who, despite the ceasefire called by his government, appears intent on crushing the rebels as quickly as possible, but also to own the inevitably complex endgame after the dictator falls. Given the United States' ongoing experiences with post-despot nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems at best naive and at worst irresponsible to suggest that a multilateral coalition, even with the blessing of the UN, will have greater success.
The question of how another well-meaning intervention by the West will be received in the Arab world is likewise very complex. Though the Arab League has voiced its support for a no-fly zone, there is no way of telling what public sentiment in the Islamic World will be in the uncertain aftermath of military action against Gaddafi. A peaceful, democratic and Arab-governed Libya free of visible foreign influence could be positive for Europe and America's image in the Middle East. Anything less, could just as easily reinforce the negative narratives of Western imperialism and colonial control. In truth, it does not matter whether the planes dropping bombs over Libya are British, French, American or Qatari, because the outcome of their actions will ultimately be attributed to "The West" as a whole. In short, any nation participating in military intervention in Libya stands to gain perhaps a little from perfect success and lose much from anything less.