Let's Not and Say We Did

03/21/2011 02:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • The Morningside Post TMP is the student-run news and opinion site for Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs

This post was written by Christian Kim

Henry Kissinger once wrote: "Frivolity is a costly indulgence for a statesman, and its price must eventually be paid. Actions geared to the mood of the moment and unrelated to any overall strategy cannot be sustained indefinitely".

The UN-backed no-fly zone over Libya, spearheaded by France and Great Britain, falls squarely within Kissinger's axiom. The two nations cite a moral prerogative to defend the democratic interests of Libyans, raising an outcry against Muammar Gaddafi and the brazen slaughter of his own people. The Arab League has also joined the indignant chorus, lending Western efforts an air of legitimacy. Never mind the double irony of France taking a leadership role in an international military venture in North Africa--the biggest problem with the no-fly zone is the fact that no Western diplomat has yet articulated a coherent end game strategy in Libya.

Is the goal to remove Gaddafi from power? That cannot happen without ground troops, which has been definitively ruled out by the United States. If France and Great Britain think a no-fly zone will pressure Gaddafi to step down from power, they obviously have not received the memo that Gaddafi is a loopy autocrat of the Nero mold, who would rather see Tripoli burn than give up his all-encompassing authority. Leaders at Arab League summits will attest to Gaddafi's insanity, from his rambling diatribes against other Arab heads of state, to calling himself "king of kings", and his attempted assassination of King Abdullah. If participating nations of the UN no-fly zone are unwilling to commit ground troops to uproot Gaddafi, a frozen conflict ensues with no discernible end in sight.

France and Great Britain have seized the moment in an attempt to reassert national prestige in what appears to be a clear-cut case for military action based upon moral principles. The only problem is that Western norms no longer hold primacy at the UN. The BRIC nations--Brazil, Russia, India, and China--all abstained from voting on the UN resolution. China and Russia, in particular, reiterated their core value of respecting national sovereignty. We have entered a new era of realpolitik, driven primarily by competition for ever-decreasing natural resources. Today, moral grandstanding in international affairs seems antiquated, especially coming from two erstwhile world powers from Europe who are unable to punch their political weight as permanent members of the UN Security Council. If moral prerogative were the principal driver of military intervention, then why not also act against North Korea, Myanmar, or even Yemen or Bahrain?

Let no one be mistaken: the Arab League has not asked for a UN no-fly zone over Libya because its leaders support democratic movements. Sure, some may be outraged at Gaddafi's callous use of massive force against his citizenry, but the main reason for the no-fly zone is that many Arab leaders do not like the Libyan strongman and would be happy to see him go. The League has cleverly managed to secure Western muscle by couching the Libyan conflict in moral terms, but in actuality, the larger motivation is to punish Gaddafi in a way they could not have done on their own.

The United States tried to remain on the fence for as long as possible, but the liberal zeal of its European counterparts has pushed it yet again into another interminable Middle East conflict. Truly, U.S. foreign policy has entered a new era when it follows France into war. As French President Nicolas Sarkozy basks in the international limelight, Americans should be concerned that the lack of end game strategy in Libya will render Western actions frivolous.