Libya: In America's National Interest?

On March 28, President Obama defended his decision to deploy U.S. air power in Libya. After Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi attacked his own people, Obama decided that protection of Libyan civilians was in America's "national interest." But it's not obvious that it is.

Polls indicate the public is divided on Libya. Unlike most contemporary political issues, support for or disapproval of the president's action does not split cleanly along party lines. U.S. intervention has been debated on four separate grounds: Some say Obama didn't have the legal authority to launch the attack; others grumble that U.S. involvement doesn't have a clear timeline; and many worry that the global political implications are murky, at best. For me, the most troublesome aspect of the action is it's uncertain price tag.

Since the end of World War II, every American president has initiated at least one military action without the explicit consent of Congress. On September 14, 2001, Congress gave President Bush authorization to launch his open-ended War on Terror; in March of 2003 it expanded from Afghanistan to Iraq. President Obama first obtained support from the UN (Security Council Resolution 1973) and then, "after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress," authorized military action in Libya. Certainly the U.S. mission in Libya has more definite boundaries than did the invasion of Iraq. According to President Obama, our involvement meets three specific criteria: We are protecting Libyan civilians from violence on a horrific scale; the US has a strategic interest in Libya ensuring that the violence there does not disrupt nearby fledgling Arab democracies; and we've formed a coalition with the United Nations so that in a short period we could hand over leadership to others.

Nonetheless, as was the case with U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, there's not a clear timeline for our intervention in Libya.

Moreover, despite the president's assurances, the global political implications of the U.S.-Libya invasion are opaque. Obama acted to protect fledgling democracies in the Arab world (and to protect Libyan civilians) but it's not clear what this doctrine implies with regards to other troubled states. For example, Burma (Myanmar) has one of the most repressive governments in the world and an incipient pro-Democracy group led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Millions of civilians have been displaced, brutalized, or killed, while Burma's neighbors are all struggling to become more democratic. It's reasonable to ask why hasn't the U.S. formed an international coalition to topple the Burmese dictators.

For me, the most vexing concern is the cost of our involvement in Libya.

During my time in the Silicon Valley I learned that's it's never sufficient to have a technically superior product. To be a success a product has to be readily available, have good support, and carry a reasonable price tag. The U.S. military has a technically superior "product," one that's readily available throughout the world and has good "support." (Indications are that the Libyan intervention was supported in the Arab world.) But does American military intervention justify the cost to U.S. taxpayers?

In his March 28 speech, President Obama was silent on this point. However, experts agree that each day of military involvement in Libya costs the U.S. millions. (Estimates differ, but one source says $100 million per day.)

After 9/11 no one questioned the cost of the War on Terror. The U.S. had been attacked and we were determined to bring the perpetrators to justice no matter what the cost. (According to a September 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service, "Congress has approved a total of $1.121 trillion for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans' health care for the three operations initiated since the 9/11 attacks.") However Libya didn't attack us and these are different times.

When the U.S. economy was booming and Americans were hopeful about the future, the public might have been willing to entertain a discretionary war with an uncertain time limit and cost. That's not true in 2011. Americans are worried about the economy, the future, and the U.S. deficit. That makes it all the more important for the president to make clear what the Libya intervention is going to cost and how we are going to pay for it.

I commend Obama's humanitarian inclinations. I'd be willing to support the president if he had said something like, "I'm going to ask Congress to levy a tax on millionaires to pay for the Libya intervention" or "We're going to offset the cost of the incursion by eliminating the following weapons' programs," but he hasn't said anything about where the money is going to come from. Until President Obama stops assuming the U.S. military has a blank check, I'm not going to support the intervention in Libya or any further adventures "in the national interest."