This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Libya. Don't go there, Mr. President. Sending the Marines ashore in Tripoli would be a terrible mistake.
The reasons are many. The Iraq war has bred tremendous distrust of the United States in the Arab world, and many Arabs would quickly brand any U.S. military action in Libya as a sinister crusade against Islam. The first Arab to make that charge would Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan dictator who is fighting to regain control of the country.
U.S. action by the Sixth Fleet to impose a no-fly zone or to invade Libya would be a disaster. Today, the war there is a fight by patriotic rebels to topple an insane and homicidal dictator. Inject U.S. forces and Gadhafi would instantly recast the war as a fight to repel infidel American invaders.
Nevertheless, the pressure on President Obama to intervene has grown after the Arab League endorsed a no-fly zone over Libya. That would seem to give the United States cover from Arab states to support the rebels in Libya and help them survive Gadhafi's counter-offensive.
Remember, though, that the leaders of many of the Arab states are under pressure from their own populations to cede power. Popular uprisings have sprouted like oil wells across the Middle East. So, a welcome for U.S. action from the ruling elites who run the Arab League is not the same as a welcome from the Arab peoples themselves. Or from Libyans.
The United States also should beware the limits of military power. As we have learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. forces can depose a government, but it is much harder to restore order and build a new, better one. The U.S. military already is stretched to the breaking point in two wars. Intervention in Libya should be out of the question, especially because the fighting there poses no direct threat to U.S. national security.
Don't get us wrong. There is no reason for the United States not to kill Gadhafi. He is responsible for anti-American terrorism, including the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. He also has no compunction about killing his own people to maintain power. If he slaughters more civilians to put down the rebellion, the pressure on the United States to intervene will increase.
But remember the Powell doctrine: If you break it, you own it. If the United States has learned nothing else from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should have learned that.
What's more, imposing a no-fly zone is unlikely to turn the military tide in Libya. It will take more than that. And more than that is a temptation the United States should reject.