Zooming In On Libya

Since you are reading this on a computer it is likely that you have experienced Google

Source: :Image:The Earth seen from Apollo 17.j...

Image via Wikipedia

Earth, a marvelous way to zoom in or out on just about any geographic point in the world.  The first time I tried it I was fascinated by how the perspective changed during the zooming process.  It works both ways of course, in and out.  As you zoom out you get a wider perspective until human structures disappear and you see only geography.  Ultimately you are left with only Carl Sagan’s “blue marble”.  Astronauts have remarked on what seems obvious here, that the earth is mankind’s only lifeboat in an otherwise hostile void.

We now know that our species, homo sapiens, has been around for about 200,000 years, but meaningful written history exists for only about 3% of that time.  Before that we were hunter-gatherers in tribes which almost didn’t survive at one point.  Now, in so-called modern times, we are floundering in trying to deal with technologies that have far outstripped our political and social abilities.  Here in the information age and with the potential of nuclear annihilation we are still tribal in nature.

Because military systems exist and can be used on command, it is tempting to try to tilt ongoing events such as the Libyan civil war by, as has been suggested, creating a “no-fly” zone.  Seen up close, the situation appears to offer a tipping point that may affect the stability of the entire Middle East for decades to come.  But what if we zoom out?  Is it possible to see the Libyan situation in historical context and derive a strategy that would avoid past mistakes?  I believe we can.

Official portrait of United States Secretary o...

Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense, via Wikipedia

U.S. Secretary Robert Gates said some wise things in a speech recently.  He said, “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 should have his head examined.” It is wise advice.  George Friedman, founder and head of Stratfor, the world’s largest private intelligence and forecasting company, took the occasion to expound on the subject and published one the clearest essays on the subject I have read.  Titled, “Never Fight a Land War in Asia” , it clearly reinforces the lessons I have posted about before and does a better job of it.  It is not a long read and I strongly recommend it, especially for all the war hawks out there.

Friedman draws what to me are some fairly obvious conclusions.  He states,

The problem the United States has in the Eastern Hemisphere is that the size of the force needed to occupy a country initially is much smaller than the force needed to pacify the country. The force available for pacification is much smaller than needed because the force the United States can deploy demographically without committing to total war is simply too small to do the job — and the size needed to do the job is unknown.

Then, he offers,

Some people argue that the United States is insufficiently ruthless in prosecuting war, as if it would be more successful without political restraints at home. (emphasis supplied) The Soviets and the Nazis, neither noted for gentleness, were unable to destroy the partisans behind German lines or the Yugoslav resistance, in spite of brutal tactics.  The guerrilla has built-in advantages in warfare for which brutality cannot compensate.

President George W. Bush shakes the hand of ou...

Rumsfeld and Bush, via Wikipedia

Friedman proceeds to analyze the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the same context, while sensibly rejecting Donald Rumsfeld’s dictum that, “You go to war with the Army you have.  They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” This and his other analysis is, in my opinion, most sensible and in keeping with the 8 -point Powell Doctrine.  He ends his analysis by advocating diplomacy as the principal alternative to war-fighting, at least in land-war situations.  Unfortunately, he also says that the current conflicts are “. . . not a policy failure of any particular U.S. president.  George W. Bush and Barack Obama have encountered precisely the same problem . . . “, meaning in Afghanistan and Iraq.  As I have opined before, the very lessons Friedman wishes to emphasize in his essay could have been foreseen by George W. Bush before he made his fateful decision to take Iraq.

Friedman’s analysis is clearly expressed.  Now, can the U.S. tip the scales in the Libyan affair without becoming embroiled once again in a morass of tribal conflict?  If we establish a no-fly zone, then where does that lead?  If we arm the Libyan rebels and they then fail, will that lead to another Bay of Pigs fiasco? There is much to ponder here.  Let us hope that the Obama administration can zoom out and do the right thing. And let us also hope that the CIA and other agencies are telling the boss the objective truth and not simply what he wants to hear.  So far I think the administration is doing a good job.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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4 Responses to Zooming In On Libya

  1. jonolan says:

    Of course these “experts” always leave out the pragmatic third alternative; send in enough troops to secure the valuable resources – oil production facilities in this case – and leave it that.

    As long as the stability of oil exports are maintained, does the internal squabbling of any of these nations really matter to us?


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Well, jonolan, of course OIL is at the heart of the whole matter and always has been. OIL is the 900 pound gorilla in the room that nobody even needs to mention because everybody knows it. OIL trumps all the touchy-feely things our officials always say about other countries. OIL is why we tolerated dictatorships for decades in places like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and, many years ago, Iran. But, the Middle East is now more of a house of cards than any other time in recent memory, what with the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt and uprisings elsewhere. What happens in Libya is likely to affect the others. What would be the effect, for example, of MQ quashing the rebellion? Would that put the damper on activists in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and the rest, and if so, is that good or bad for us? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I do know that our energy supply teeters at the very edge of instability. It is SO bad that Libya’s tiny 2% of world supply is causing gasoline at the pump to be headed for a projected 65% increase this year. It might have been otherwise if years ago the U.S. had adopted a sensible and conservative energy policy. Instead we have NO strategic plan – it’s simply not part of our societal meme to make long-term plans that require discipline and sacrifice.

      Energy-wise we are like a pencil, balanced on its point. That’s why it matters.


  2. jonolan says:

    Your post was about our using military force in Libya. That is what I responded to.


  3. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim and Jonolan,

    Jonolan is correct, Jim. You blogged on Libya, a moment in time today which is a big issue. Another blog on Oil would expand the issue to a bigger and more complex subject.

    Afghanistan and Iraq (though Iraq is a very small issue today) fall into the same catagory. How we got there is one thing. What to do after arriving and now how to get out is a different argument, in my view.

    NO ONE in their right mind would call for putting “troops on the ground” in Libya today, NO ONE, at least that I have heard. Jonolans call for protecting oil producing facilities being beside the point. I of course would oppose such an attempted intervention.

    And the simple reason I would oppose it is because we CANNOT DO IT even if we tried to so intervene. Today such armed intervention is beyond our American military capability, period. Yes, maybe we could send in a “seal team” to capture MQ but even that is a BIG Maybe, today.

    I don’t know exactly how many American troops “manned the lines” in Europe, particularly Germany for almost the duration of the Cold War. Maybe 150,000 perhaps, or more? Today would can no longer do that whether we want to do so or not, being beside the first point.

    American POWER has diminished, both domestically and internationally, in my view. Since at least WWI American Power was used to extend American IDEALS to the rest of the world and to uphold such ideals at home and expand them as well, at home.

    It is a new world today, a world with significantly diminished AMERICAN POWER. The threats to American IDEALS have always been there. Barbary Pirates of long ago to Nazi and Communist monoliths and now to rag tag “terrorists” coming out of caves with explosive backpacks to kill as many as possible.

    American POWER prevailed for over two centuries in the face of such challenges.

    Today, that ability is greatly diminished and our ability to project or even protect our ideals abroad or even at home now, in a flat world, are being brought into deep questions in my view.

    Libya today is but one very small example of that much larger question. And for sure there is very little we can do today about or with Libya. Some will say that is good. Others, myself included, will not be so quick to applaud such a state of affairs, today.

    Far more than Libya is now at stake around the world today.



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