EDITORIALS

Libya’s lesson points toward US ‘smart’ power

A Libyan rebel gestures in Abu Salim district in Tripoli, Libya, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011.
Francois Mori | AP
A Libyan rebel gestures in Abu Salim district in Tripoli, Libya, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011.
Posted Aug. 25, 2011, at 3:37 p.m.

Even if rebels can hold Libya’s capital city of Tripoli and Moammar Gadhafi leaves the country he has led for 40-plus years, U.S. and NATO military involvement cannot necessarily be declared a success. That chapter will be written only after — and only if — Libyans can form a strong but open government.

President Barack Obama’s decision to join with NATO in aiding the Libyan rebels was a risky step. And even if that risk ultimately pays off with the ouster of the Gadhafi government, the new nation may not embrace an alliance with the U.S. Or worse, the populist principles ruling the day in Libya now may morph into a religious nationalism that is unfriendly to the U.S.

Military intervention, limited or not, must remain in the U.S. arsenal. But a shift toward the use of what diplomats call “smart power” or “soft power” makes more sense for the coming decades. Relying on smart power would mean shifting resources away from expensive military hardware and hundreds of thousands of troops and instead focusing on intelligence, covert operations and constructive engagement in nations which are at risk of becoming spawning grounds for terrorism.

It would save money, but that is only an ancillary benefit. Using military and economic might in the “smart” sense has the potential to achieve stability in some of the world’s hot spots.

The Libya intervention was itself an example of a decidedly limited military involvement. The president pledged that U.S. troops would not be used. But that “one foot in” approach has been used before, and it has led to thousands of American boots on the ground.

In fact, the story of overt U.S. military intervention around the world since World War II makes the case for a new approach. It is a story of lessons not learned.

Defending South Korea from North Korea from 1950 to 1953 may be seen as a success in that South Korea remains independent and secure. But defending South Vietnam from North Vietnam from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s must be seen as a failure, given that South Vietnam fell shortly after U.S. forces left.

Both Korea and Vietnam were divided as an outcome of World War II. Japan occupied both, but they were split when the war ended. The lesson is that lines drawn arbitrarily on a map by outsiders are likely to lead to conflict later. The same dynamic was seen in the former Yugoslavia, where the fall of the Soviet Union led to a return to conflict between ethnic groups. It also is seen in Iraq, whose borders were drawn in the post-World War I era by British occupiers.

Using military force to compel Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait in 1991 was successful because the mission was limited. U.S. troops routed the Iraqis, but did not follow them into the heart of Iraq. Yet even that mission left dictator Saddam Hussein weakened but not deposed, interpreted by President George W. Bush as a threat and leading to the U.S. invasion in 2003 and occupation that continues to today.

Covert action always is at risk for abuse. But it must be an option for U.S. policy, as long as there are sufficient checks and balances with congressional leaders. Intelligence must be well-funded and credible.

And constructive engagement — investing in infrastructure in emerging nations — yields important returns for both the U.S. and other nations.

When thousands of young men are unemployed, when utilities are intermittently supplied and when there is little hope for improving one’s lot in life, radical politics take root. U.S. funds spent building water and electric systems would create jobs in these countries, engender some loyalty and, ultimately, create markets for U.S. products and services.

It’s a much better bang for the buck than — pardon the pun — building more bombs.

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