The United States has now embarked on its third war of choice in less than a decade. And like the 2003 Iraq war and the Afghan war after 2009, this war of choice is ill-advised.
Libya is a war of choice for two reasons. First, U.S. interests are decidedly less than vital. Libya accounts for only 2 percent of world oil production. The scale of the humanitarian crisis is not unique; indeed, this is not strictly speaking a humanitarian intervention. It is a decision to participate in Libya's civil war.
It is a war of choice for a second reason: The United States and the world have other options besides military intervention. Civil wars tend to burn out and come to an end sooner barring significant foreign intervention. A range of tools, from economic sanctions to covert action, could weaken the regime, bolster the opposition or both.
In this last regard, President Barack Obama has done himself no favor by demanding that Libya's leader of four decades, Muammar Qadhafi, give up all political power. By doing so the Obama administration has essentially denied itself the diplomatic tool.
Why should Qadhafi stop pursuing his domestic opponents if he must leave office – and, worse yet from his perspective, face possible trial for war crimes?
The U.S. demand for Gaddafi's ouster causes two other problems as well. First, it goes beyond the U.N. resolution that it is the basis for current military action. The world is demanding that Qadhafi hold off attacking rebel positions and that he pull back from several cities. Implicit here is that he can remain in power if he complies. Will Washington accept this?
Second, the U.S. demand is also inconsistent with stated limits on what it is prepared to do to oust Qadhafi. Obama promised his fellow citizens there would be no U.S. boots on the ground in Libya.
But limited means cannot always be relied on to deliver essentially unlimited aims. To the contrary, big goals often require a big price to be paid.
This intervention is ill-advised for a number of reasons. Under almost any scenario, whether Qadhafi's removal from power, his falling back and holding off as the U.N. resolution requires or his fighting on successfully, something more than the current international military effort —which now involves considerably more than just imposing a no-fly zone — will be required.
But who will maintain order? And who can prevent a continuation of the civil war? The likely answer to these and related questions is military forces from the outside. But forces from where and for how long and with what mission and at what cost? There is little evidence that any of this has been thought through.
This intervention is also a strategic distraction. U.S. policymakers would be wiser to focus on what could be done to buttress Egypt's economy or to help deal with the far more important and dangerous situation unfolding in Bahrain.
What happens in Libya will not have much if any impact on these and other regional developments. Indeed, it is Qadhafi's political isolation in the Middle East that, as much as anything, explains Arab League support for the world's armed effort against him.
It is true that this military intervention in Libya is multilateral — in the sense that there is U.N. backing and some military contribution from others. But such multilateralism only means that there is some international support and some sharing of burdens. It does not mean the effort makes sense in its design or execution. Multilateral support in and of itself is not a reason to do something.
Those advocating the intervention emphasize what they see as its moral underpinning — if not necessity. But this requires bringing about something morally preferable in Libya at a cost commensurate with interests.
Alas, there is little reason to be confident the opposition will be able to constitute a benign, national alternative. It could just as easily be tribal-based, radical, localized — or some combination of all of these. A Libya that is at war with itself for years, or that either welcomes or becomes too weak to resist groups like Al Qaida, is not something worth fighting for.
There are also strong competing claims on morality. What about asking young American men and women in uniform to put their lives at risk for interests that are less than vital? For outcomes that are less than sure to be an improvement over what now exists?
Or what about committing the United States to another costly foreign intervention at a moment we owe it to ourselves — not to mention future generations — to get our economic and military houses in order so we can meet our obligations at home and be prepared to meet true wars of necessity (North Korea for one) if and when they arise?
At the end of the day, though, the Libyan intervention is more than anything about the role of the United States in the world. The United States cannot and should not intervene in every internal dispute where bad or even evil is on display.
It is not simply that we lack the resources, which we do. It is that we lack the ability to right every wrong, and that not every situation has within it a solution.
It was John Quincy Adams who, some two centuries ago, warned that the United States should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. He was right then. He is no less right today.
Richard N. Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars.”
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.