Libyan Folly

By Morgan Norval l March 12, 2011


Photograph: Tiago Petinga/EPA

The German Chancellor Otto van Bismarck once remarked that the Balkans weren’t worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. He was responding to pleas for German intervention in one of the numerous bloody squabbles in the Balkans at the time. Bismarck’s statement could today be paraphrased that Libya isn’t worth the bones of a single U.S. serviceman. Yet politicians and news media types across the political spectrum are clamoring for just such an intervention in spite of polls showing that over 60 percent of the American people are opposed to such an action.

Libya is embroiled in a civil war and an intervention on our part means we are taking sides in that struggle. We seem hell-bent on just such an action. By doing this we are violating solid principles of statecraft. In considering such an intervention, decision makers must satisfy just two pre-conditions: 1) does the incident for which we are considering intervention pose a threat to U.S. interests? and, 2) is the use of force required to settle the incident? The civil war in Libya fails both of these pre-conditions.

Even though Libyan leader Gaddafi is a monster, his country does not threaten the United States and, in point of fact, since the 9-11 attacks on the U.S., our diplomatic relations with the Libyan dictator have been cordial.

We live in peace every day with murderous dictatorships around the world such as Zimbabwe, Burma, and China, to name just three. We do business with them and bargain diplomatically with them. We also collaborate with them and won World War II, while our collaboration with the murderous Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, was sustained.

Is Gaddafi killing his citizens who are rebelling against him? Yes, he is. But I know of no civil war fought that didn’t involve killing. If killing one’s subjects were cause for U.S. intervention then why don’t we intervene in Zimbabwe where a similar thug, Robert Mugabe, rules with a bloody iron hand? What about Darfur in the Sudan? What about intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or action against Puntland in northern Somalia, the nesting place of most of Somalia’s pirates? Gaddafi’s current actions aren’t an attack on the U.S. or any other country. They are acts, violent as they are, attempting to settle a civil war among Libyans. Where is the U.S. vital interest in that? If we intervene in Libya, its future would become our responsibility—and it won’t come cheap.

There are no U.S. interests in Libya and Gaddafi does not threaten our national security.

According to a study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in Washington, DC, enforcing a “no-fly zone” could cost billions, while we are currently running up trillion-dollar deficits. CSBA estimates a full “no-fly zone” over all of Libya would cost between $100 million and $300 million per week, as well as an estimated $500 million and $1 billion to launch the “no-fly zone” with attacks on Libyan ground targets. Such an action is the opposite of deficit reduction being trumpeted by the Tea Party and many in Congress.

Asked about a “no-fly zone” at the March 2nd congressional hearing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates responded unequivocally, stating:

“A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country….[b]ut it requires more airplanes than you would find on a single aircraft carrier. So it is a big operation in a big country.”

Libya is the ninth largest oil producer within OPEC, yet the U.S. gets only about 5 percent of its oil from Libya. Europe is the main recipient of Libyan oil and it is Europe, especially France and Germany that are leading the drum-beat shouting for a Libyan intervention. While screaming the loudest for an intervention, these countries lack the ability to project enough military force to do the job. They have to get the U.S. to carry their water for them. That hasn’t stopped them from mounting a full-court press on the European-loving Obama Administration and they have picked up allies all across the political spectrum. Conservative talking heads and the internationalist-inclined media elites are all sounding like bleeding-heart liberals and mouthing the same cry:”Get rid of Gaddafi!”

Their fever-pitch cries are not addressing who they support in the civil war in Libya. According to Andrew C. McCarthy in a recent article in National Review Online (March 10, 2011), “. . . the main opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood—avowed enemies of the West whose goal is the establishment of Sharia states. . . Whatever regime comes after Gaddafi is likely to be anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Israel. . .”

McCarthy’s view is bolstered by a study of captured personnel records in Iraq by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. This report studied foreign Jihadis who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007. It found that Libya produced “far more” foreign fighters per capita than any other country. Over 80 percent of the Libyan recruits came from two Libyan cities: Benghazi and Darnah, a city lying east of Benghazi. This region, Cyrenacia, is the center of the rebellion against Gaddafi.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has voiced its support for the Libyan rebels and they have developed and stoked underground and Islamic hard line fundamentalist currents in Libya and have played a role in eastern Libyan efforts against Gaddafi.

A secularist, Gaddafi is fervently anti-Islamist and Osama bin Ladin is his nemeses.

Yet, the end of Gaddafi’s tyranny in Libya does not necessarily mean freedom. The outcome of a civil war can be wonderful in a country that understands the principles of liberty associated with democracy and is willing to fight for it. Do we seriously believe that Libya, a land dominated by tribal politics and the Islamic religion is going to evolve into a Western-style democracy and be friendly towards the West? Any form of an Islamic style democracy would not be like ours. Their form of “democracy” will be run according to Sharia law.

In point of fact, Muslims believe their civilization based on Islamic law is superior to our Western model. It is well to point out that under Islamic law women don’t have equal rights as men and are treated as second class citizens. There is no freedom of religion—it is Islam and nothing else. Islamic countries are notorious for persecuting homosexuals and adulterers, often sentencing them to death.

Libya has no such understanding of Western-style democracy.

For centuries Libya was under the despotic rule of the Ottoman Empire until, in its declining state, it became an Italian colony after the end of the 1911 Italian-Turkish War. After Italy’s defeat in World War II, Libya became independent and was ruled by King Idris until Gaddafi mounted a successful coup some forty-two years ago. Libya has no tradition or understanding of the principles of liberty underlying the democracy we are zealously trying to export to the rest of the world; so their only choices are tyranny or chaos.

They have a tyranny in the form of Gaddafi and are entering a period of chaos as witnessed by the on-going civil war. When Gaddafi’s tyranny ends, perhaps aided by the United States, Libya will slide into chaos until some new thug rises to control them. Right now in Libya we have the devil we know and he appears to be defeating the devil we don’t know.

A siren call for U.S. intervention in Libya boils down to the U.S. vs. Gaddafi and it will force us to fight to his bitter end. Undoubtedly, that will entail U.S. blood and treasure. Squandering our resources and extended post-conflict peacekeeping in another hostile Muslim country—hostile because, once again, we would be occupying Muslim territory.

To return to Bismarck: Libya is not worth the blood and treasure we’ll spend catering to the whims of Europeans, internationalists and those zealous advocates for intervention across the political spectrum.


Morgan Norval is the founder and Executive Director of the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.