How Many Wars? After Libya . . . ?

“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli . . .”

[ also at DailyKos ]

We once made the sardonic observation that apparently the aim of the “war on terror,” rather than protecting the Homeland, was to inflame the entire Muslim world—or at least those nations possessing oil. We thought we were only being sardonic.

The U.S. has fired on Tripoli before, of course, in the First Barbary War (1801–1805)—America’s first overseas conflict as an independent nation. Then the United States had its whole future before it . . .

So now the U.S. is at war with four Muslim countries? (We’re counting the undeclared war on Pakistan, as the Afghan war, now in its 10th year, has blurred into the AfPak war, with unmanned Predator drones firing missiles that have killed countless civilians along with jihadists, particularly in Waziristan.)

In response to a request by the Arab League and pressure by France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., the United Nations Security Council on March 17 passed a resolution demanding an end to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s excessive force against his own people as he fights furiously to crush a rebellion, and authorizing a no-fly zone and the use of military force. The Security Council measure passed with five major abstentions: Germany, Russia, China, Brazil, and India all opted not to vote. Among the Western nations, France and the United Kingdom were pushing hardest for action against Qaddafi. (Click here for a map of the conflict in Libya as of March 25.)

This blog is usually liberal/progressive (domestic policy wishers-and-dreamers), but in this case count us as foreign policy realists. The United States is in a chronic revenue crisis—while radicals in Congress are constantly threatening to shut down the government over excessive spending—and does not have the money to be firing off 110+ Tomahawk missiles at $1.4 million a pop and supporting at least 10 U.S. battleships or aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya. We already cannot afford $16 billion per month in Afghanistan (estimate by economist Joseph Stiglitz).

What Is Our Purpose in Libya? Whose Fight Is It, Anyway?

But what is the endgame? How does this play out? Now that we’re involved, the United States as the most powerful player will own the outcome (at least partly). And what will that outcome be? Who exactly are these rebels we’re supporting? (See here and here.) They are said to include the volunteers (or ideological brethren thereof) who went to Iraq to fight against “the Crusader” in the war that began in 2003—on March 19, the same day the Libya air assault began—and still has not ended. If somehow Qaddafi survives and there is an exodus of refugees from Libya, will they seek safe refuge in the United States? France? The United Kingdom? Or will the Arab League states take them in?

NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent Richard Engel, who is in Libya and speaks daily with rebel forces there, asks quite logically: Once the rebels feel they have an alliance with the U.S. military whose air strikes have protected them, how do you withdraw that support in a matter of “days, not weeks” without leaving them exposed to reprisals from Qaddafi if he survives in power—the very reprisals the air strikes were originally authorized to prevent? We would add: Do the rebels really have it in them to carry this fight to the finish? How much help do they need? Should outsiders assist? Can al Qaeda pitch in? If outsiders assist the Libyan rebels, what other resistance movements deserve help? Syria’s? Jordan’s? The Palestinians’, too?

What is the mission, and when will the Coalition of the Fractious know when the mission is accomplished? (The Obama administration is not exactly unanimous on the matter, either.) Are the U.S. and Europeans listening to the Arab League, or only telling them how to vote? Obama has said Qaddafi must go, yet the White House denies the U.S. is pushing for regime change. Then there’s the little matter of no congressional authorization, which has infuriated both left and right.

And what of the uprisings in neighboring Muslim nations against repressive regimes the U.S. has been supporting, as we’ve secretly assisted Qaddafi? Will we also defend rebels in Yemen? Bahrain? Jordan? Syria? (Click here for a map of uprisings in the Arab world.) In recent years U.S. drones have been patrolling the skies and firing missiles into Yemen, possibly Somalia, and elsewhere. How can this country defend its democratic principles and its economic (oil) interests at the same time?

There is certainly a humanitarian case to be made for intervention that is hard to deny. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and security adviser Samantha Power, and most influentially Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came around to the view—influenced by the horrors of the Rwanda massacres in the mid 1990s and remorse for U.S. inaction then—that the U.S. had a moral obligation to help prevent a similar slaughter.

Anyway, let’s be blunt: the United States does not bother with humanitarian concerns if there’s no oil in the deal (thus Rwanda). As an al-Jazeera correspondent has pointed out, if Libya’s primary export were bananas, the U.S. would be hands-off.

Whether it’s a war or a military action, and even if it’s for humanitarian purposes in concert with the Arab League and European allies, this is an expense the U.S. cannot afford. We propose that the Tomahawk missiles fired not be replaced—they’ve already been paid for, and there’s a stockpile of some 3,500. The U.S. cannot afford to replace them when we’re already laying off teachers and police, canceling infrastructure projects, and still giving tax breaks to the wealth and to corporations. But we digress . . .

Now that NATO is nominally in charge of the coalition’s mission, we don’t expect the U.S. to really stand down. More likely we’ll go covert, funneling arms through Saudi Arabia and Egypt, currently the Libyan rebels’ primary source of weapons.

We have argued before that the U.S. must change its energy policy. This nation cannot continue to fight wars for foreign oil, a dwindling resource that is not even the most efficient energy source. The wars our soldiers fight to secure American access to oil only drive up the price per barrel, anyway. To continue on this mad course is to commit suicide as a nation—or rather, to be driven to death by the oil corporations and auto manufacturers.

Carbon emissions aggravate global warming, which intensifies hurricanes and raises sea levels. That, along with the 10,000 miles of oil industry pipelines through the Louisiana wetlands, hurts New Orleans, Louisiana, and other precious places.

At the time of the First Barbary War, America had its whole future before it. What future does our nation face now, when 24 million are un- or underemployed and our Congress is filled with ax-wielding, budget-slashing radicals and Democrats too timid to oppose them? Maybe our only hope is that the so-called conservatives who oppose all things Obama will for once reverse their usually automatic support of war and defense spending and instead demand an end to not only this war but also the others in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maybe not, though, for even when “the enemy of my enemy [war] is my friend,” that first enemy is still an enemy and wishes us no good (see “Republican War on Middle Class”). Even if they ended the wars, next they’d go after Social Security, Medicare . . .


For good reporting on the Libyan war and Middle Eastern issues generally, see Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, Steve Clemons’s The Washington Note (our favorite for foreign affairs ’round the world), and of course Al-Jazeera in English (all on our blogroll). Also recommended: Josh Marshall’s thoughtful “Just a Bad, Bad Idea” at Talking Points Memo and F. William Engdahl’s “Creative Destruction: Libya in Washington’s Greater Middle East Project” at

Photographs above from the New York Times’s “Battle for Libya” slide show

See also the slide show at Talking Points Memo: “Libya in Revolt: Rebel Forces Clash With Qaddafi-Led Government





How Many Wars? After Libya . . . ?