Global Public Square

Does the U.S. really want to own Libya?

by Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Here's an excerpt from the op-ed I wrote today in The Washington Post:

American statesmen have always experimented with the use of limited military means to support foreign policy interests that are important, and worth engaging American power, but not vital. From the Barbary wars (fought against the Barbary States, which included parts of modern Libya) to gunboat diplomacy in Asia to the many military interventions over the past few decades (Grenada, Lebanon, Somalia, the no-fly zone over Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo), the United States has often tried to find ways to use its military yet not engage in all-out war. Some were more successful than others, but in all cases, the central task was to find the balance between the goals we sought and the means we were willing to deploy. The time we didn’t ask questions about the costs and simply escalated the means, we ended up in Vietnam.

The tendency for a president is to be pushed to achieve a decisive victory, no matter the costs, no matter whether the interests at stake are vital or secondary. Presidents want to be leaders of great causes, and the Libyan mission is certainly a good cause. But the more grandiose the rhetoric and the goals, the broader the military mission. And then the United States takes responsibility for the fate of Libya — a country riven with tribes, lacking strong institutions and a civil society, and destroyed by four decades of Gaddafi’s madness. Do we really want to own this, and largely alone? Is it such a bad idea that others should be involved?

Washington is now hoping that a bit more military power will dislodge Gaddafi’s regime. My fingers are crossed. But it would be far more sensible, while hoping for the best, to plan for other likely outcomes....

As I argue in the op-ed, limited interventions might have limited successes, but they can also avoid catastrophic failures.