In our opinion: Tread carefully in Libya

Published: Thursday, March 17 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

The United States should think long and hard before deciding to intervene in the atrocities unfolding in Libya.

Associated Press

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With military operations still under way in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with a struggling Japan in need of immediate aid, the United States should think long and hard before deciding to intervene in the atrocities unfolding in Libya.

That's not to say that the atrocities being committed under the direction of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi aren't appalling. It is to say that foreign entanglements are seldom simple or easy to plan. It may be more effective to provide pressures on the Gadhafi regime or to support the rebels in more indirect ways.

The Group of Eight powers couldn't agree this week on the idea of enforcing a no-fly zone over the African nation, which has been torn by civil strife since massive public uprisings against Gadhafi began last month. But the United Nations Security Council may still decide to pursue the matter.

Meanwhile, time is running out. Gadhafi appears to be gaining the upper hand against the rebels, and it appears he may be able to hold onto power through sheer brutality and force.

If the United States were to intervene, it should do so as part of a multinational effort. However, it is unclear whether the United States could afford to do so, whether such an intervention would be effective, and whether rebel opposition groups would move the country any closer to freedom and liberty. A similar intervention in Somalia years ago led to tragedy and chaos.

In addition, the United States and its allies would need a clearly defined mission with a specific end-strategy in mind — something that never was clear in Iraq or Afghanistan. As an official with the Rand Corp., recently told TIME, "What we've learned over the last 20 years is that overthrowing objectionable governments is easy; replacing them with something good is hard."

Even efforts conducted with the best intentions can easily go awry. A no-fly zone would have to be enforced through the air, which would expose U.S. pilots to anti-aircraft guns. Even if it were successful, some observers say Gadhafi's forces are having their best success on the ground. Would allied forces content themselves with watching from the skies as Gadhafi continues to slaughter his countrymen in decisive ground assaults? Are Americans prepared for the deaths and collateral damage that are bound to follow any intervention?

Large-scale humanitarian disasters ought to provoke calls for action among the world's civilized nations. By all accounts, including recent interviews on television, Gadhafi seems to have lost touch with reality. And yet an intervention into another nation's civil conflict is a matter of choosing sides, and those choices aren't always clear-cut.

With much of the Arab world in turmoil, the United States needs to tread carefully, lest it sets a precedent that would compel it to intervene in several other efforts to topple undemocratic regimes also.

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