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Libya: Next Steps for the United States

Next Steps for the US in Libya


In a previous blog, I laid out the case for avoiding the potential “sticky wicket” of US involvement in internal Libyan strife. But recent actions by the United States have deployed cruise missiles and CIA “boots on the ground” there. So now that the US is involved, what are our options? The truth is, it depends almost entirely on Muammar Gadhafi. If Gadhafi steps down, and agrees to go into exile, much of the immediate problem goes away. Not necessarily (or even probably) the mid-to-long range challenges, but the short-term potential for significant loss of life, and spillover of conflicts outside of Libya’s borders.


Risk Analysis

At this point, broadly speaking, three things can happen:

  1. Gadhafi resigns and goes into exile: The best possible scenario at this point for the United States, this course would incur the least loss of life in Libya, the least expenditure of US dollars, and offer the greatest hope of stability in a subsequent Libyan government. It would also be likely to result in a US ally in that region, and reduce the likelihood that terrorists would be trained and/or supported there. In addition, it would have the least damaging effects on our European, Asian, and African allies. Finally, this eventuality makes the strongest case for the viability of a less-than-boots-on-the-ground approach in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and other countries in similar straights right now.
  2. Gadhafi remains in power: The worst possible scenario at this point for the United States, this eventuality would almost certainly result in the greatest loss of life in Libya. It would likely incur a higher level of expenditure of US dollars, as the expenditure of funds for humanitarian efforts and insurgency support continued. While the resulting government would likely to be classified as more stable (since it would merely represent the continuance of an existing structure), this course of events would result in greater enmity between the resulting government of Libya and the US, and likely encourage Libya to remain a training ground for anti-western terrorists. It would certainly have similar negative impacts on our allies all over the world, especially in Europe. Finally, the message to other hot spots such as Syria would be that no one involved in internal abuse of their citizenry need fear the United States; if Gadhafi can resist the military intervention of the US and her allies, other more capable countries should be able to do the same.
  3. Gadhafi fights on, but is ultimately defeated: This scenario is not as good for the US as an outright and near term resignation / exile by Gadhafi, but beats the scenario where he remains in power indefinitely. Loss of civilian life in Libya would be higher than if Gadhafi merely resigned, but not as high as if he stayed in place for another decade. The spend of US dollars would likely be very high, as the US continued to support both humanitarian efforts and regime change there. Beyond the defeat of Gadhafi, of course, the government should stabilize behind another leader – hopefully one who is friendlier not only to the interests of the United States, but to his own citizenry as well. At that point, the US would likely (though not necessarily) have another regional ally, and would benefit from a reduced likelihood of terrorist training camps or financial support for anti-American terrorism from that country.


Strategic Planning

In the event that Gadhafi resigns, the US will likely take the following actions: Arrange for a host for Gadhafi and his family in exile, secure amnesty for him from world courts (as a deal sweetener to get his voluntary resignation), terminate our participation in the “No Fly Zone” and other military engagement, enlist other benefactors from the same hemisphere (Asia and Africa) to perform any military mop-up work and staff civilian aid projects.

If Gadhafi “wins”, and remains in power in Libya, the US needs to find a way to back out of our leadership – and to the extent possible, even our participation – in the “No Fly Zone” and any other existing or future military operations in Libya, until such time as Libya becomes a threat to the United States or it’s interests. All further actions in these areas need to be picked up by European and/or Asian countries with an interest in doing so. The US may, of course, continue to back insurgency and/or civilian aid for humanitarian purposes through the use of 3rd party providers.

In the event that Gadhafi decides to continue to resist the US, NATO and the rebels within his own country and fights on, the United States should still terminate our financial and military support of the “No Fly Zone” and all other military involvement, and allow that activity to fall on the shoulders of countries like France who appear to have the deepest interest in the country (and who failed to support the US in our War on Terror following 9-11.) This course of events becomes more costly and less likely to be successful as time drags on, since funding insurgencies and/or humanitarian relief over long periods of time is a substantial economic burden when many countries (including the United States) are already saddled with massive and growing levels of debt.

Potential Next Actions Are Listed Above


Potential Outcomes

There are three broad sets of potential outcomes from the current situation. They are:

  1. Gadhafi Resigns, and one of two things happens: a) The subsequent government is friendly to the United States and benevolent to its citizenry, or b) The subsequent government is Unfriendly to the United States, and despotic to its own people. Either outcome is possible, and history has repeatedly shown.
  2. Gadhafi Remains in Power Indefinitely, and one of two things happens: a) A militarily and economically weakened Gadhafi softens his hard-line positions, treats his people better, and becomes more pliant to outside parties, or b) An emboldened Gadhafi becomes even more aggressive toward his own citizens, and more assertive with other countries due to his perception that he has defeated even the United States as they supported rebel factions within Libya.
  3. Gadhafi Fights On, But is Eventually Defeated. Whether this occurs within a year or over a longer period of time makes a substantial difference in the impacts of the situation. If the matter is resolved relatively quickly through the use of overt or cover force, the message clearly sent to other countries experiencing similar turmoil will be that utter chaos and despotism will not be tolerated – it basically puts the rulers of those countries “on notice.” However, if the conflict wears on for well over a year it will inflict serious financial damage to the US and our allies there. In addition, the lesson that will be exhibited to other countries in similar positions is that we can be resisted successfully for a protracted period of time, and they will likely presume that if they are larger or more clever they can resist for even longer – perhaps even outlast us.

First Set of Possible Outcomes is Listed Above

Second Set of Potential Outcomes is Listed Above

Third Set (3a and 3b) of Potential Outcomes is Listed Above

I have a friend who frequently tells me that the best course of action for the United States in these situations is simply to assassinate the leader of the foreign country involved, citing the savings in lives and treasure to the United States and the civilian population of both warring countries. I did not analyze that option here because the United States does not engage in it; I’m not saying it’s necessarily the wrong answer, I’m just saying that as far as I can tell it’s never an option that’s ever officially on the table.


Based on the way this looks to me then (and I am no foreign policy expert), the only attractive course of action is to take whatever steps are required to secure Gadhafi’s agreement to step down and retire somewhere.


What do you think?

One Response to “Libya: Next Steps for the United States”

  1. Marie Luft says:

    I think I heard about an attempt at assasination of a guy named Osama Bin Laden during the Clinton administration … but for whatever reason, the white hats were not successful. Guess we’re just not good at that. We have to send armies of guys and make all kinds of waves to get one man.

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