Slow Your Roll, Washington

As the situation in Libya continues to show more and more signs of becoming a protracted civil war, there are politicians in Washington, from both Congress and within the Obama administration, who are calling for an American military intervention of some sort, whether it be imposing a no-fly zone over the disputed areas, or putting boots on the ground for humanitarian purposes.

Whatever the form such an intervention would take, there is little doubt that it would exceed mission parameters, cost more than originally estimated, and kill Libyan civilians and possibly American personnel. Those things alone should be enough reason not to intervene in Libya. But from the talk of senators such as John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain, one would think that any operation in Libya would be easy, would be a cake walk, would not put any sort of strain on a military already overstretched by almost ten years of continuous war.

Our own lawmakers seem to have forgotten just what it means to do things such as impose a no-fly zone. The key word in the previous sentence is impose. We would be imposing a restriction on another nation’s sovereignty, during the course of which it will be necessary to destroy that nation’s air defense infrastructure — it’s radar sites, anti-aircraft missiles and batteries, etc. It will be an act of war. We will be killing and wounding the Libyan soldiers manning these installations. Our high-tech and precise munitions, despite being insanely expensive (one Tomahawk cruise missile costs a million-and-a-half bucks), go off target, frequently. Which means there will be collateral damage in Libya. Dead civilians, burned toddlers lying in the hospital beds, suffering just in time for the evening news. No one wants this to happen, but if we start lobbing munitions into Libya, the unavoidable first step in imposing a no-fly zone, these things will happen.

And who’s to say it will stop there?

Radar sites and missile sites probably won’t be enough. There’s also command and control, which means targets in the heart of Tripoli, Libya’s capital. This will mean an increase in casualties. Bombs and missiles will rain down from above, dozens or more a day, blowing up this ministry building and that palace, and strays would manage to find a hospital. It always happens. Now we’ve committed ourselves. Now we’re trying to bomb a regime out of existence. Maybe it would work. Maybe the rebels could quickly sweep into Tripoli if they had the type of air support that our guys rely on. Maybe, but along the way, they’d have to climb over the piles of Libyan dead that those bombs and missiles would leave. And those would always be on us.

What about the other option, troops on the ground? Here, the situation is even worse, because no commander in his right mind is going to put our guys on the ground anywhere unless we have total air supremacy, which means imposing the no-fly zone, and destroying Libya’s capability to even launch planes and helicopters, and also expanding attacks against command and control. Even for humanitarian purposes, destroying Libya’s ability to threaten our forces is the first step. Think about that. We would need to annihilate Libya’s ability to threaten our humanitarian mission before we could land it. Before we land our beneficent force, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Libyans would have to die.

Now we have troops on the ground. Now mission creep is an everyday factor, it’s a year later, and we’re wondering why no one in Washington anticipated us being stuck in Libya for so long.

Intervening is Libya is a bad idea, for no other reason than that the people who came up with this bad idea have taken nothing into account regarding cost, time, or scope of mission. They haven’t thought about just what it means to intervene, because they’re caught in a loop of their own sound bites. Sure, a no-fly zone sounds easy enough, but it isn’t. Humanitarian mission sounds easy, we’re the good guys, but that’s not the way things work out in the real world.

Our own military doesn’t want to do it. Why? Because they are so exhausted from Iraq and Afghanistan that they’re not sure they can be effective. That is damn serious. The Pentagon has been accused of making a possible Libya mission seem tougher than it would be, more sweeping in scope than needed. That’s because they seem to be the only people left in our government who understand that when the military is let loose, plans turn to garbage immediately.

There really is no compelling reason for us to intervene. The death toll is rising, and that is a moral concern, but the cost to the United States is very real. We should not cling to the myth that we are capable of relieving suffering in far-flung places throughout the world because we are a good people. The reality is far more complicated. The test for intervening militarily should be whether or not we need to intervene. In Libya, we clearly do not. Whatever the outcome, whether the rebels topple the regime or Qaddafi manages to hang on, we can live with either consequence. The last thing we need to do right now is take on another costly military adventure whose outcome we cannot predict.