The international military intervention in Libya is not in the vital interest of the United States, according to former national security advisor James L. Jones, “but we are part of an alliance,” he said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.
“It is more in the vital interest of Europeans,” the retired Marine Corps general explained, “when you consider the effects of massive immigration, the effects of terror, the oil market.”
On the same program last week, defense secretary Robert Gates agreed that the unrest in Libya posed no actual or imminent threat to the United States.
The North African country has been engulfed in turmoil since its longtime ruler, Muammar al-Gaddafi deployed heavy force against anti-government demonstrations that were inspired by similar revolts in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. The violent crackdown sparked a civil war that left the government in control of the western part of Libya while rebels, now protected from airstrikes by a UN mandated no-fly zone, control the east.
America’s involvement in the enforcement of the no-fly zone, which was necessarily to disable Gaddafi’s air defenses within a matter of days, has been controversial with members of both major political parties. Opposition Republicans in particular worry about the lack of a clear exit strategy which they say could involve the United States in another long and costly war in the Arab world.
The administration and military officials have insisted that America’s role in the intervention would be limited however. Last week, NATO assumed control of the operation. Western European and Qatari aircraft are supposed to patrol the Libyan skies while the United States take on a supportive role.
On CNN’s State of the Union, General Jones admitted that the goal of the intervention wasn’t clear. “We know that the end stage is to have regime change in Libya,” he said but that was not the purpose of the military mission.
Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski nevertheless said that the West had to make sure that Gaddafi wouldn’t stick around. “The longer this thing lasts the more likely he is to end up entrenched in at least half of Libya,” he told Fareed Zakaria on GPS.
The no-fly zone alone may not be enough to give the rebels the edge they need to defeat Gaddafi’s army and mercenaries. Arming them has been suggested and it was reported last month that the Obama Administration had asked Saudi Arabia if it could supply the anti-government forces with weapons.
“Quietly, we can certainly do a lot,” said Brzezinski. But Jones was skeptical, noting that the West wasn’t sure just who the rebels were. Once it could identify them, foreign powers could “decide whether that’s meritorious or not in terms of training, organizing, equipping,” he said.
While the United Nations resolution authorizing military action in Libya explicitly ruled out an “occupation” and the president has promised that there will be no American “boots on the ground,” American intelligence operatives have been in Libya, presumably in contact with the opposition.
British prime minister David Cameron said last week that in his government’s view, the resolution might not prohibit “assistance to those protecting civilians in certain circumstances.” Foreign Secretary William Hague added that that could include the arming of rebel forces.