The US “intervened” in Libya, it said, for humanitarian reasons. A massacre was allegedly about to take place in Benghazi, US airpower prevented that from happening.
The hope was that the rebel forces would quickly regain the initiative, over-run Col. Qaddafi’s forces and take control of the country. The US and its Nato allies could then recede from view and allow whatever happened next to happen.
Predictably, it didn’t work out that way, leaving the United States in the “intervention paradox.” Stephen Walt explains:
Because there are no vital strategic interests at stake in the Libyan situation, outside leaders are reluctant to do whatever it takes to resolve the situation quickly. You don’t hear Obama, Sarkozy, or Cameron declaring that they are going to call up reserves, redeploy forces from other commitments, or launch a direct invasion of Libya itself. They know that that mission isn’t worth it, and that their own populations would quickly question the wisdom of such a massive operation.
Instead, intervening powers try to use as little force as possible, and seek to minimize their own casualties above all…..
The other option, of course, is to use overwhelming force from the very beginning. Qaddafi’s loyal forces might be effective against a poorly-trained rebel army, but they would be no match for a sizeable NATO force. But this isn’t really the answer either, even if we had such forces readily available (and remember, the United States is already bogged down in other places). For one thing, doing it this way is a lot more expensive, and you’re likely to lose some of your own people along the way. And once you’ve ousted the regime you own the country, and trying to put a society like Libya back together again would not be easy or cheap (see under: Iraq, Afghanistan)….
Hence the paradox: if you go in light you get a protracted stalemate; if you go in big you end up with a costly quagmire. Under these circumstances you can understand why the intervening powers are tiptoeing their way in, but as noted above, that merely increases the danger that the civil war drags on.
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