The Weekly Standard’s Weak Standards

Two items from this week’s edition of the Weekly Standard are striking—not so much for what they argue but for the weak cases they make.  The articles, by Max Boot and Thomas Donnelly and Gary Schmitt, respectively, argue for regime change in Libya and raising the defense budget because of the current operations taking place in Libya.

Boot is up first with a call for deposing Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi.  He asserts that displays of American military power will most likely “shock and awe” Qaddafi’s supporters into submission and surrender.  Boot believes the regime change operation should be modeled on the “successful” effort pursued by tribal forces backed up American air power in Afghanistan in 2001.

It is shocking that people still refer, as Boot does here, to the initial U.S. effort in Afghanistan in 2001 as a success.  Both supporters and critics of the current effort in Central Asia tend to still cite the initial attack that consisted of the tribal forces of the Northern Alliance backed up by American air power and facilitated by the CIA on the ground as an overwhelming success.  Boot believes a similar effort would have great success in Libya.  But what did the initial efforts in Afghanistan really accomplish?   The claim of an early victory in Afghanistan—subsequently squandered by the Bush administration’s focus on Iraq—was that the Taliban was quickly chased from power and that tribal forces captured Afghan cities.  This assumes that victory in Afghanistan was predicated on the removal of the Taliban from political control of Afghanistan and the capture of Afghan cities.  The ultimate goal of any war is to impose one’s will on an enemy and that has certainly not been achieved.

The capture of cities and removal of individual or groups from power are important means against enemy states—less so against non-state actors like al Qaeda—but they do not necessarily mean the strategic end has been met.  In Afghanistan, the goal was to depose the Taliban for not turning over Osama bin Laden to the United States following the September 11th attacks, to capture or kill bin Laden and his deputies, and to smash its operational capabilities in the country.   These goals have been partially met, but defining partial success as “victory” allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup and choose different ways to engage American and NATO forces.  Is this what Boot would have the United States recreate in Libya?

That begs the most important question:  What then?  What comes after Qaddafi?  No one knows the nature of the Libyan resistance.  The region of Libya out of which the resistance is based has been notorious for its exportation of foreign fighters to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Will the anti-Qaddafi forces pursue a democratic agenda once the colonel is out of power?  Will they seek reprisals against pro-Qaddafi forces and civilians?  Seeing as there is little evidence that the opposition is made up of one coherent organization—will the various, disparate groups splinter and fight amongst themselves once the focus of their current ire is removed?

To his credit, Boot acknowledges that this will be more difficult than actually deposing Qaddafi’s regime and suggests focusing post-Qaddafi efforts on the Transitional Council based out of Benghazi and headed by former justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil.  That’s all well and good, but no one has any idea how much legitimacy Jalil and the Transitional Council have with the Libyan people.  Steven Metz of the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College sees the situation as ripe for an insurgency no matter what the outcome:

Neighboring states are likely to provide insurgent sanctuary whether deliberately—as an act of policy—or inadvertently because a government is unable to control its territory. North Africa has a long history of insurgency, from the anti-colonial wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to more recent conflicts in Chad, Algeria, and Western Sahara. Where insurgency occurred in the past, it is more likely to occur in the future. All this means that there is no place on earth more likely to experience an insurgency in the next few years than Libya.

Boot has continually claimed we can never leave Iraq or Afghanistan because of the chaos and insurgency unleashed by the U.S. invasions and occupations.  If chaos and insurgency become the order of the day in Libya, Boot will have a third Muslim country for which he can advocate a permanent U.S. presence.

Boot’s call for regime change offers no strategic rationale for why it is necessary, and neither does Donnelly and Schmitt’s argument that current operations in Libya demonstrate the need to increase defense spending.  Of course, Donnelly, Schmitt, and the rest of the Defending Defense crowd have little need to search for more reasons to call for raising the defense budget, but their argument goes right to the heart of why they want ever-climbing levels of defense spending—and it has nothing to do with U.S. security or its legitimate interests.

Donnelly and Schmitt claim that Libya somehow represents a security threat to the United States—and that intervention is somehow in furtherance of American interests—but they offer no evidence to demonstrate a threat exists.  They also assert, “As these recent events attest, there is no substitute for having sufficient U.S. military forces to be able to conduct multiple campaigns in the region while continuing to operate throughout the world. It’s not clear we have this capability now. After all, it appeared the Bush administration could only adequately fight one of its wars at a time.”  Actually no, these events attest that there is no limit to the military engagements Donnelly and Schmitt are willing to call for the U.S. military to be involved in.  It also begs one rhetorical question and one serious one:  Which war did the Bush administration “adequately fight” at any point?  And, more importantly, how does Libya demonstrate the need “to be able to conduct multiple campaigns in the region while continuing to operate throughout the world”?

There is no strategic rationale behind this statement whatsoever—and, unfortunately, that’s the point.  For Donnelly, Schmitt, and their fellow travelers, the point of defense spending is not to meet a defined strategic purpose—it is to allow the United States military to intervene anywhere, at anytime, and for any purpose they see fit.  Military action is not a means to an end under this formulation—it is an end unto itself.

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