Since the end of World War II successive United States administrations – Democratic and Republican alike – have meddled extensively in the affairs of sovereign nations, with very mixed outcomes in terms of long-run United States interests.
Meddling in Korea was costly in terms of men and materiel and ended essentially in a stalemate, at the high cost of alienating Mao Zedong’s China.
Meddling in Indo-China was yet more costly and ended in a shameful defeat for the United States and a significant loss of international respect for a nation perceived to be incompetent in the exercise of war. Defeat in Vietnam fueled Soviet contempt, leading eventually to the seizure of Afghanistan, and the fueling of major instabilities in the Middle East, as well as in Latin America.
Meddling in Afghanistan to destabilize Soviet control, was less costly and more successful, in the short-term, but only to open up a failed and abandoned nation to Muslim fundamentalist, Taliban and al qaeda control, with devastating consequences for America on September 11, 2001.
The two Gulf Wars against Iraq proved to be extremely high cost in terms of men and materiel, with still uncertain long-term consequences for the United States, as religious and ethnic conflicts flicker beneath the surface of an anticipated American withdrawal.
The dozens of U.S. interventions in the Dark Continent, designed to replace one African Big Man with another African Big Man, seldom worked to the advantage of the United States, still less to the advantage of the indigenous populations. In a number of instances, Zaire being perhaps the most infamous, the United States placed kleptocrats into authority over largely helpless populations.
So is Libya different? The media yesterday was resplendent with theories that President Obama has discovered a new, low-cost route to foreign meddling using American technology to allow others to destabilize foreign powers without any loss of American lives and at a low cost in terms of a strained federal budget. Does this perceived success now map out a new future for American meddling across the universe of sovereign nations?
I doubt that this is so. Libya is a small, backward country, with no navy, no air force and a ragtag army equipped with 1960s fire-arms. Even with a revolutionary army as incompetent as the one that emerged, British and French bombing raids and munition drops supported by U.S. drone attacks, was more than sufficient to topple Gadhafi, who, incidentally, for several years, had been a welcome ally of the United States (and of Britain) in suppressing terrorism and in opening up lucrative investment opportunities for U.S. businesses.
Meanwhile, there are some seriously bad guys out there who will not be removed by a Libyan-style intervention. Iran and Paskistan are the most dangerous, closely followed by North Korea. All three countries potentially threaten WMD attacks on the United States, if they are allowed to roam unconstrained across the international spectrum. Syria also is no Libyan push-over and would have been a budding nuclear power save for effective bombing raids by the Israeli air force.
The world remains a very dangerous place. Diplomacy has a role to play but – as is apparent – diplomacy does not work with rogue nations. So lest we become overly complacent, let us not equate a victory in Tripoli with the imposition of a new Pax Americana.
As SPQR demonstrated more than two millenia ago, the Pax Romana, was costly both to impose and to maintain. Even so, it proved to be an excellent long-term investment for a one-time small city state to undertake, offering all of us who now want it the enormous benefits of Western civilization.