This commentary was published by The Council On Foreign Relations on 18/03/2011
President John F. Kennedy once mused that limited military interventions are like taking a drink--once you take one and the effect wears off, you have to take another. Kennedy was employing the metaphor to rebuff calls from his hawkish advisers about how a circumscribed military deployment in Vietnam would prove decisive. Libya is neither Vietnam nor Iraq, and the case for intervention in Libya has to be discussed on its own terms and on its own merits. However, proponents of a more muscular policy do disservice to their own humanitarian cause by not asking the probing questions that architects of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq in 2003 so irresponsibly avoided.
Too often, the advocates of military involvement in Libya present their cause as completely antiseptic, improbably simple, and in no way leading to further entanglement. All this is not to suggest that we should not intervene but merely that given our recent experiences in the Middle East we should have an honest dialogue about costs and contingencies that we may confront.
Under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council Resolution, the United States and its allies are going to extend a no-fly zone to protect the rebel stronghold city of Benghazi. Such action is likely to prove critical, as it is unlikely that Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's forces are going to assault a city protected by an international force. The question then becomes how to handle the urban centers that are under Qaddafi's brutal occupation.
Are the Libyans of Surt, Misurata, Zawiyah, Juda, and others cities less worthy of humanitarian protection then the justifiably jubilant residents of Benghazi? Can Benghazi remain the sole sanctuary in the midst of a burning Libya? To relieve the siege of other Libyan cities, does the United States need to move beyond airpower and actually deploy Special Forces, arm the rebels, and recognize the nascent opposition government? Can the moral concerns of the United States and international community delicately circumscribe themselves to the boundaries of Benghazi?
It is important to note that the UN Security Council resolution passed at the behest of Washington is not just about a no-fly zone. In the aftermath of the resolution, the United States is morally and practically obligated to the survival and viability of the anti-Qaddafi insurgency. To stand aloof and indifferent as the Qaddafi clan leaves alone the oasis of Benghazi while molesting other cities and citizens betrays the cause that the UN Security Council seemingly embraced. Otherwise, we just took a drink. Should the effect wear off, are we prepared to take another one?