The Power Problem: Nicholas Burns on what the U.S. should do about Libya
The Power Problem is an occasional series of mini-forums on Power & Policy, asking specialists from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School to suggest policy responses by the United States to pressing world issues. We invite readers to comment.
We asked our experts: What should the United States do now that Qaddafi is digging in? And what is the gravest risk for the United States in the Libyan crisis?
By Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics, Harvard Kennedy School; Director, Future of Diplomacy Project; and Faculty Chair for the Programs on the Middle East and on India and South Asia.
Muammar Qaddafi is a weird, brutal, cynical and vile dictator whose fall from power would be cheered from one end of the world to another. The United States should do everything we can to isolate him, cut off the flow of funds to his gangster-style family dictatorship and turn Arab and world opinion against him. President Obama is right to deploy a naval task force off the Libyan coast to pressure and intimidate him, to prepare to extract refugees, to bring food and medical aid to suffering Libyans and, perhaps, ultimately, to intervene.
We should also move now with Britain and France to pressure Qaddafi further—by meeting with rebel leaders, sending American diplomats to Benghazi to get a much better sense than we currently have of their unity and aims and by considering enforcing an arms blockade of the Libyan government and perhaps even jamming Libyan military communications.
But, should we go further and use direct military force at this point in the Libyan civil war to try to hasten Qaddafi’s departure from power?
No. At least at this point, the likely negative consequences of an American-led military leap into the middle of this confused and chaotic conflict outweigh the possible gains.
Before we do anything, we should ask ourselves some tough questions. We may very well decide to intervene should Qaddafi’s barbarous attacks on his own people continue and grow more severe. But, we need to think this through in a much more deliberate way before we act.
First, we should have learned from our bitter experience in Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq that it is far easier to start a war than to end one. Or, to paraphrase Churchill, when one goes to war, it is impossible to know how and when it will end. That is undeniably true in Libya. While the spirit and energy of the anti-Qaddafi forces is admirable, the U.S. and other governments literally do not know their leaders and have no idea what type of government they would establish should they chase Qaddafi from power. It makes little sense to go to war on behalf of a group of people one does not know and whose behavior once in power is entirely unpredictable. The first step, then, is for Secretary of State Clinton to proceed with her planned meeting with rebel leaders next week. We simply need to know more about them before we can consider supporting them militarily.
Second, a no-flight zone just might prove more complicated than its proponents believe. We would be taking an active role in a civil war that shows no sign of abating and could paralyze Libya for months or years to come. Once we use air power to bomb Qaddafi’s radar and SAM sites to establish control of the skies above the Libyan desert, we will become a protagonist in the war. Would we have any reasonable hope of limiting our involvement to that simple step? It is highly unlikely and far more probable that we would gradually assume a greater share of the active military burden to dislodge Qaddafi from power.
Third, we should not attempt a no-flight zone on our own. We have more than enough military capability to do so but, sooner or later, a unilateral U.S. campaign would lead not only Qaddafi but perhaps even moderate Arabs to accuse the U.S. of, once again, trying to use its military to dominate the Middle East. As of this writing, there is neither a consensus in NATO nor unanimity among the Perm Five at the UN to authorize a U.S.-led international military effort. Even more importantly, there is no unity in the Arab world. A no-flight zone could prove useful but only as part of a larger and well thought out strategy to weaken Qaddafi and not as an isolated step.
The national debate on this issue has become more than slightly surreal. Imposing it might complicate Qaddafi’s counteroffensive against the rebels but there is no convincing argument that it would cripple him. His recent successes derive largely from his ability to use ground forces where his armor, artillery and seemingly well-organized mercenary forces are striking back effectively against brave but rather ill-equipped and raw rebel recruits. If a no-flight zone is not a panacea, we should only consider it as part of a larger and more coherent strategy.
Fourth, do our national security interests in Libya warrant the use of force? We should never ask our military to go to war when the stakes for our own, direct interests aren’t actually vital. We do have vital interests in the Middle East—in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Gulf and even in Yemen where, according to the Department of Homeland Security, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and not Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaida, now poses the most serious terrorist threat to our country.
But, Libya? Our core interests there are far from vital and currently do not demand the extreme use of national power—the entry of U.S. forces into an increasingly violent and unpredictable war. Furthermore, if this was the only possible use of American power in the region, that would be one thing. But, the great Arab Awakening of 2011 may only still be in its opening stages. The wave of protests, idealism, anger and reform that is sweeping across twenty-two Arab countries shows no signs of abating anytime soon. That tells me that the U.S. has to marshal its own energy and resources to deploy them only when and where it is truly necessary and vital.
One final thought. The U.S. must lead as the most influential actor throughout the Middle East but we cannot hope to be the stage director of each of the dramas now gripping the Arab world. We have to assume some measure of restraint and caution in thinking about how we can best help those courageous young people trying to shape a new future in the most anti-democratic part of the world.
We may choose to threaten or use force to protect emerging Arab democracies in the future or to maintain the security of our Gulf Arab friends from a malevolent and enterprising Iranian government. Our most valuable assets in assisting the Arab people, however, will more than likely not be military but diplomatic and economic and through helping to nurture the growth of civil society so necessary for reform and sustained advancement of democratic principles and institutions across the region.
We can’t fight every battle in a distant region and should, instead, reserve our energy and ultimate power—our military—for the truly difficult and vital tests perhaps yet to come. We have to set clear priorities for American engagement in a region-wide drama whose ending is impossible to predict at this very early stage. That is why President Obama’s current, sharp focus on Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia makes sense for American interests and why his insistence that we ask ourselves serious questions before we order our military into yet a third war in the Greater Middle East is not only understandable but wise.