Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Kohn: Why Libya worries me so much

One of my favorite military historians is Richard Kohn, author of, among other things, the best book on the creation of the U.S. military establishment after the Revolution. Dick, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also thinks a lot about contemporary national security issues. So when he expresses worry, I ...

ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

One of my favorite military historians is Richard Kohn, author of, among other things, the best book on the creation of the U.S. military establishment after the Revolution. Dick, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also thinks a lot about contemporary national security issues. So when he expresses worry, I pay attention.

On the other hand, Defense Secretary Gates in Egypt this morning (Thursday)reportedly said we are gonna hand over the NFZ ball this weekend. Which would be a good thing.

One of my favorite military historians is Richard Kohn, author of, among other things, the best book on the creation of the U.S. military establishment after the Revolution. Dick, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also thinks a lot about contemporary national security issues. So when he expresses worry, I pay attention.

On the other hand, Defense Secretary Gates in Egypt this morning (Thursday)reportedly said we are gonna hand over the NFZ ball this weekend. Which would be a good thing.

By Richard Kohn
Best Defense office of contemporary military history

Let me explain why Libya’s different and shouldn’t be overlaid like the tracing paper of our youth either on other interventions or other situations currently in the Middle East.

1. This is an actual rebellion that came close to shattering the regime, not a bunch of demonstrations or a non-violent uprising/rebellion as in Tunisia and Egypt.

2. The rebels seized territory, took up arms, and got help from defectors in the indigenous military.

3. European "allies" pushed us, not the other way around; Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council agreed, and pushed us. We got a U.N. Security Council Mandate! This is second in importance.

4. Most important, Qaddafi has long been an international outlaw and worse than Saddam in this sense: he attacked the U.S. military personnel in Berlin in 1986 and murdered Americans on Pan Am 103 in 1988, and was developing nuclear weapons. A toxic trifecta. He made nice in 2003 when he saw what a U.S. president, spouting pre-emption, was doing to Iraq. And he’s quite unpredictable — that is, he doesn’t just err like Saddam; he’ll do the irrational.

5. Last, it looked easy, quick, and cheap–that old siren song.

Numbers 4 and 3 in that order govern. Here was an opportunity to rid the world and region of a really bad and dangerous actor, allow the United States to have it both ways in both promoting democracy and still support friends, warn uglies like the Syrian leader not to make war openly on his own folk, and get our friends in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen to try to cool it.

Will it work? Steve Walt in this case raises the right flags. We have been late, our mission is unclear, and the commitment of our word and our prestige so great that I fear we have a long term mess on our hands. OUR hands, not just the Europeans or the administration. Even if we hand this off now, it could, like Bosnia, end up with the United States having to bail out our friends, at great cost.

Tom again: Here’s another list of distinctions from another prof, old Juan Cole. But he’s happier with the NFZ than is Prof. Kohn.

Meanwhile, demonstrating that the military mind can find humor in anything, a drunk Predator drone is twittering from somewhere over Libya. Here’s one: "Sandy as shit around here. And confusing. There are raggedy dudes in pickups everywhere, with scarves and AKs…and they’re the GOOD guys?" Here’s another: "Libya looks like Tom Friedman’s vision of the world. Hot, flat, crowded, and occasionally infested with American cruise missiles and drones."

(HT to WoI)

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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