With the current military operation in Libya, the U.S. has taken on a third campaign for forcible regime change in the Middle East.
No matter how we might try to convince ourselves otherwise -- that we are only “protecting civilians” or “implementing the will of the international community” -- Libya now joins Afghanistan and Iraq as cases where the U.S. military is using force to bring down a Muslim regime.
The issue isn’t whether Muammar Qaddafi deserves to fall. He does. The main concern ought to be whether the effort to bring him down justifies the long-term expense in American blood and money.
If the no-fly zone can divide Qaddafi’s support and bring new recruits to the rebel cause, perhaps his regime will fall in short order. President Barack Obama’s administration can then congratulate itself on a cost-effective and relatively painless win.
Success isn’t a sure thing. Qaddafi’s followers didn’t abandon him when it looked like the rebels would sweep into Tripoli earlier this month. The no-fly zone might not scare them enough to flee.
It’s possible that the rebels will hold out in the east of the country, while Qaddafi retains control of Tripoli and the west. In that case the U.S. government will find itself protecting an autonomous area of the country and maintaining a long-term military commitment to patrol its skies. That sounds a lot like our position in Iraq between 1991 and 2003.
Or the rebels might be emboldened enough to mount a new offensive against Qaddafi though not strong enough on their own to dislodge him. Does the U.S. stay out of that fight, or does it use the cover of the no-fly zone to take an active role in the offensive, using air power to help destroy Qaddafi’s forces?
My guess is that the temptation to do the latter will be overwhelming. If that happens, we will own the new Libya. Perhaps not to the same extent that we have owned Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade, but our commitment will likely be greater than we can imagine now.
What happens when rebel forces, united by their hatred of Qaddafi, realize that little else binds them and fall into their own power struggles? It will be hard not to pick sides, supporting one faction with aid and weapons.
I doubt that we will see 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Libya. But the idea that we can quickly remove Qaddafi from power without taking on new responsibilities in North Africa is like rolling double-sixes. It happens, but the odds are strongly against it.
Are vital American interests involved in the Libyan fight? Libya’s oil production is important but not central to the global economy.
A Qaddafi victory over his opponents might stop the momentum of popular uprisings across the Arab world, though it isn’t clear why the U.S. should encourage continued Arab upheaval. The fall of Arab authoritarian regimes isn’t helping the U.S.
Since the end of the Cold War, spurred on by both neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists, the U.S. has been trying to direct the domestic politics of Middle Eastern states.
It began in the 1990s, with post-Gulf War efforts to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, those efforts took on new urgency, with invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, calls for regime change in Iran and pressure on Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority to implement democratic reform.
However, in Mideast elections Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian parliament and the Muslim Brotherhood took 20 percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament.
Current regional upheavals require a rethinking of America’s Middle East strategy, though not in the way that either conservatives or liberals advocate.
It is time to consider the radical idea that the U.S. should be less involved in the politics of the region, particularly in nations’ domestic politics. Given our inability to micro-manage the politics of Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, even with an enormous commitment of American troops and money, we should realize that we have little ability to control the direction of politics in countries where we just “fly over” or “give advice.”
We shouldn’t stand in the way of regional democracy, if it comes, but we should realize that encouraging it is no guarantee that Middle East democracies will cooperate with us in their foreign policies or follow a model of domestic politics that accords with our ideas of moral values and individual rights.
It wasn’t that long ago that the U.S. played a less domineering role in the Middle East, working with friendly governments and against unfriendly ones to try to secure our international interests, but without huge regional military presences and an intense focus on the management of the region’s domestic politics.
It’s time to go back to that more detached regional posture. The U.S. should stand ready to prevent hostile states from taking over weaker neighbors and work to solve regional problems like the Arab-Israeli conflict diplomatically. But it shouldn’t concern itself with things it can’t control, and effect only marginally and at great price, like the way Middle Eastern regimes govern their people. Undoubtedly that would mean that some bad guys get away with bad things. We need to be able to live with that.
(Gregory Gause is a Middle East scholar and professor of political science at the University of Vermont. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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