Why the USA had to get involved in Libya

Mar 21, 11 Why the USA had to get involved in Libya

Last week I highlighted the pros and cons on implementing a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) in Libya. Now that a NFZ is effectively in force, with a United Nations-sanctioned coalition now controlling the Libyan skies, there are the inevitable groans of American expansionist antics into “yet another” Arab country. For the oil…

But to put it quite plainly, President Obama ironically has no choice but to get involved because of the strong NATO and even Arab military contributions being made in the country. This is not because NATO are incapable of enforcing a NFZ. Quite the contrary; the UK and France, along with many other European allies and some Qatari help, are perfectly capable of providing a strong and measured air supremecy over Libyan airspace. Bear in mind that we are comparing first world military technology against ageing soviet anti-air and aircraft hardware which cannot hope to compete for overall control of the skies. With UK Typhoons, French Rafales, Danish F16s and so on, the tactical capabilities of NATO cannot be questioned. Their ability to mount a sustained NFZ is complete. So why on earth are Americans getting involved when they really don’t have to?

It strikes the common person as something akin to a giant penis-measuring contest, and to an exent they’d be right.

This boils down to good old-fashioned power relations, utilising military technology and a decently one-sided crisis to assert military dominance. Put simply, the USA must commit a carrier fleet, long range bombers and all the logistical capabilities associated with it in order to remind NATO that, although they can take a lead role in military engagements, whatever they bring to the table will be completely outmatched by the USA. It strikes the common person as something akin to a giant penis-measuring contest, and to an exent they’d be right. But in a broader strategic context, the American involvenment in Libya really has nothing to do with Libya per se. No, not even for the oil.

Instead, America has been bloodied and humbled through the chronic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although Iraq is now relatively stable and is enjoying levels of violence never seen since the invasion began, and Afghanistan has yet to reach a true climax, these two lengthy land battles have projected a military weakness within the US Armed forces, and thus the USA’s effectiveness in projecting its influence across the world. Indian and Chinese statesmen have no doubt taken note of the difficulties faced by the world’s only superpower in defeating rag-tag terrorists armed with cell phones, a pipe bomb and a Kalashnakov, and the USA ultimately needs to remind them that, in terms of military capability, the USA is without peer. Libya provides this opportunity. By sending the US Air Force and Navy, the two most technologically “impressive” branches of military services in America, they are able to remind allies and political rivals alike that they are still without comparison, and to forget that would be at your peril.

Another way to look at it would be from the hypothetical. Were Obama not to get involved, it would mark an unprecedented shift in American foreign policy, in the sense that they are happy to sit back and let allies do the grunt work. Hell, deploying air and naval assets into a conflict zone is incredibly expensive, despite what the left would say about the military industrial complex, so sitting back and letting a capable NATO do the gruntwork would be theoretically understandable. But it would also ring alarm bells within NATO allies and political rivals (as well as enemies of America) that America has been humbled, and will shy away from a fight should one arise. That would be alarming for a Europe on the border of an occasionally-belligerent Russian Federation, who depend on America for swift action, it would be alarming for Middle Eastern Allies for similar reasons, and it would encourage Asian rivals to challenge US power further.

So Obama really has no choice, and I suspect Cameron and Sarkozy knew this when they decided to take leading roles in this intervention. Strategy in the most Clausewitzian sense necessitates that America get involved in Libya, lest there be significant political consequences. Although Obama will take a knock anyway for his “unnecessary” involvement in Libya, particularly thanks to his pre-emptive Nobel Peace Prize, the political tradeoff between this and an overall portrayal of military reluctance in global affairs make the former a far more appealling policy to adopt.

Image by Steve9567