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Twilight for Qaddafi?

With the U.S. and NATO's thumb firmly on the scale, the balance of power in Libya seems to be shifting steadily toward the rebel forces. That's bad news for the Qaddafi family, though their lack of attractive alternatives to fighting on makes it unlikely that they will simply surrender.  This outcome is also not that surprising, as the Libyan military was never a first-class fighting force and it was not going to have real trouble standing up to the rebel forces once they started getting lots of outside help. The danger, however, is that the rebel forces will not be able to consolidate control over the entire country without a lot more fighting, including the sort of nasty urban warfare that can get lots of civilians killed.

As with the invasion of Iraq, in short, the issue wasn't whether the West could eventually accomplish "regime change" if it tried. Rather, the key questions revolved around whether it was in our overall interest to do so and whether the benefits would be worth the costs. In the Iraqi case, it is obvious to anyone who isn't a diehard neocon or committed Bush loyalist that the (dubious) benefits of that invasion weren't worth the enormous price tag. There were no WMD and no links between Saddam and al Qaeda, and the war has cost over a trillion dollars (possibly a lot more). Tens of thousands of people died (including some 4500 Americans), and millions of refugees had to flee their homes. And for what? Mostly, a significant improvement in Iran's influence and strategic position.

In the Libyan case, same basic question.  Hardly anyone thinks the Qaddafi family deserves to run Libya, and few if any will mourn their departure. But assuming the rebels win, will the benefits of regime change be worth the costs? Secretary of Defense Gates has reported that the war has cost the United States about $750 million thus far, which is not a huge sum by DoD standards but not exactly trivial in an era of budget stringency. More troubling is the cost to Libya itself: NATO and the US intervened to ward off an anticipated "humanitarian disaster" (which might or might not have occurred and whose magnitude is anyone's guess); what we got instead was a nasty little civil war in which thousands may already have died (and the fighting isn't over yet). So we can look forward to lively debate on the wisdom of this intervention, with advocates claiming that we prevented a larger bloodbath and skeptics arguing that there was never any risk of a genocide or even a deliberate mass killing and that our decision to intervene actually made things worse.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is about to hit the 60 day deadline imposed by the War Powers Act, and so it is marshaling a lot of clever lawyers to find some way to keep the war going. But here's a radical suggestion: why not just go to Congress and ask for authorization? Such a step would be consistent with the U.S. Constitution, and President Obama made this very point himself before he became President. As he told the Boston Globe in 2007: "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." And if the case for this war is so strong and it is so clearly in our vital interests to do it, surely the articulate advocates in the Obama Administration won't have any trouble convincing Congress to go along.

At the same time, the US and NATO had better be thinking long and hard about what they are going to do if and when Qaddafi falls. As we are now seeing in some other contexts (e.g., Egypt), revolutionary change is usually chaotic, unpredictable, and violent, and it creates opportunities for various forms of mischief. These dangers loom especially large in Libya, due in good part to the lack of effective political institutions and the likelihood that some of the people we are backing now will want to settle scores with loyalists. And that possibility means there's also a risk of the same sort of loyalist insurgency that sprang up in Iraq, possibly rooted in long-standing tribal divisions.

So if the liberal interventionists who got us into this war want to make their decisions look good in retrospect, they had better have a plan to ensure that political transition in Libya goes a lot more smoothly than it did in Iraq. And you know what that means, don't you? We'll be there for longer than you think, and at a higher cost than one might hope. But no worries; it's not as though we have any other problems to think about (or spend money on) these days.

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Stephen M. Walt

In the war of American decline, should we fight battles at home or abroad?

Remember the "unipolar moment?" You know: that period that began when the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States in an unprecedented position of power. As former President George H.W. Bush put it in 1991, the United States found itself "standing alone at the pinnacle of power, with the rarest opportunity to remake the world." And both Democratic and Republican administrations tried to do just that: expanding NATO, supposedly spreading democracy, putting "rogue states" in the cross hairs, and sending the U.S. military into action on virtually every continent.

Of course, in the wake of the financial crisis and the self-inflicted wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, things don't look quite so rosy today. China's GDP is likely to overtake America's in the next decade or so, which will mark the first time in over a century that the United States won't have the world's largest economy. China still lags behind the United States on many other indicators of power, so it's far too soon to talk about a fundamental transfer of power from Washington to Beijing. Nonetheless, its steady rise and obviously growing assertiveness are making plenty of people wonder about how the United States should respond.

So let me simplify this issue for you. Boiled down to its essentials, the biggest question facing U.S. leaders over the next decade or so is whether America's global position will be enhanced more by successful foreign-policy initiatives, or by successful policy responses here at home. In other words, will America's long-term security and prosperity be enhanced most by various foreign and defense policy maneuvers, and especially by successful efforts to deal with potentially dangerous situations in various parts of the world? Alternatively, we will be more secure and more prosperous if we do less abroad and use the time and resources to get our house in order here in the United States instead? This is obviously not a simple either/or situation, but the key question is what priority one decides to place on each policy domain.

Those who favor the first position -- i.e., who think our security/prosperity depends mostly on the role we play globally -- tend to think that the United States faces many threats and that our forward presence in various parts of the world is essential for stability in key regions and indispensable for keeping lots of bad guys at bay. If we aren't fighting them in Kandahar, flying drones in Pakistan, helping rebel forces in Libya, providing aid and advice in Colombia, so the argument runs, we'll face rising dangers closer to home. Or sometimes they argue that the United States has a moral responsibility to use its power on behalf of others. This view is most evident among die-hard neoconservatives, but plenty of liberal internationalists still see the United States as the "indispensable nation" that has to shoulder the main burden whenever serious problems arise almost anywhere.

By contrast, people who incline to the second view think that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has a built-in tendency to overstate threats and a real problem setting clear priorities. They see the United States as remarkably secure and insulated from most problems by two enormous oceans, by a formidable nuclear deterrent, and by strong conventional forces that can tip the balance in key regions like the Persian Gulf. In this view, a lot of what we've been doing lately isn't making Americans richer or more secure, and certainly isn't worth the cost. They question whether spending $100 billion a year on Afghanistan makes a substantial contribution to American security and believe that sort of money could be better spent on productivity-enhancing projects here at home. When they read that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is about to lay off 4,000-plus teachers in order to close a budget deficit, they see it as one of the many independent policy decisions whose cumulative effect will be to leave America dumber and therefore weaker in the years ahead.

The second group recognizes that America does have a global role to play, but believes that in the end our power and influence depends far more on having a healthy, highly educated, politically loyal, and energetic society here at home than it does on shaping political outcomes in far-flung corners of the world. And the second group tends to think that we'd be a lot more popular in some parts if we weren't constantly trying to tell others how to live (and blowing things up in order to persuade them).

I've been sketching a pretty crude picture, of course, and the proper answer lies somewhere between these two stark alternatives. But as readers of this blog know, in the present era I think it is pretty clear that it is the home front needs the most attention. We do need an active foreign policy, but the emphasis has to be on setting clear priorities, liquidating commitments that are not vital (and may even be counterproductive), and making it clear to others that the United States is not a philanthropic organization with an infinite bank account and endless tolerance for feckless, fickle, or uncooperative allies. (Pakistan heads that list this week, but it is hardly alone). And at the same time, we need to address the eroding infrastructure, failing schools, world-record incarceration rates, elite corruption, and rising economic inequality from which the United States now suffers, all of which pose a far greater long-term threat to our security and prosperity than groups like the Taliban or al Qaeda do.

But here's the problem. Presidents and their advisors have lots of latitude in foreign policy, and we still have a big defense establishment that gives them lots of options for meddling. Heck, the president can decide it's a good idea to overthrow the government of Libya and get busy doing it, without asking anyone's permission or facing significant political opposition. But given the decentralized nature of the U.S. government, the pervasive influence of special interest lobbies, and the present state of political polarization, trying to implement major domestic reforms is like trying to drag a shipping container through quicksand with a bicycle. So it's no wonder that this administration (like its predecessors) finds it tempting to focus on foreign policy. It ain't easy, but it's a lot more fun than trying to fix what's broken back home.

Closing teaser: Some folks in the DoD seem to have reached similar conclusions to the ones I've expressed here, and a paper by two military officers (writing collectively as "Mr. Y") has been receiving some fawning attention in the press lately. Although I'm sympathetic to some of their ideas, the paper itself is a disappointment. I'll lay out my reasons in a subsequent post.

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