Should the U.S. intervene in Libya? The rationale for establishing a “no-fly zone” may seem obvious to some, but Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are making it clear they want no part of Libya. To understand the defense establishment’s aversion to another foreign conflict, consider the startling statement Gates made just a few weeks ago. “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa,” Gates said, “should have his head examined.” Now, Gates is no dove; he’s a career military and intelligence man who has spent his life projecting American power abroad. But in four years of overseeing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates has witnessed firsthand the perils of trying to bend fractious tribal nations to our will. We’ve sacrificed the lives of nearly 6,000 Americans, the limbs and psyches of tens of thousands more, and more than $1 trillion. And yet the outcome, in both Iraq and especially Afghanistan, remains in doubt.
That humbling experience does not mandate that the West stand idly by as Muammar al-Qaddafi massacres Libyans. But beware those who see our choice as a simple matter. As Gates has publicly warned, there is no such thing as “surgical” and limited military intervention. Planes get shot down, the unforeseen unfolds, and well-meaning nations can get sucked into the power vacuum created by an autocracy’s collapse. Ten years of war have vividly underlined Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule: If you break a foreign country, you own it. America, one suspects Gates is reminding the White House, already has enough broken crockery on its mantelpiece.