It no longer matters how we got here. We intervened, and that changed everything.
By attacking armored columns with the “No Fly Zone” aircraft, we ensured the survival of the poorly-equipped-and-untrained rebellion in Libya against the much-better-armed-and-trained loyalist forces. That’s the world we live in, and those are the conditions we must deal with.
Whether or not the US, and to a lesser extent NATO, could have gotten the same in terms of strategic interests by doing nothing, by buying off or threatening Kaddafi, whether this was of a high enough order of national interest to do when balanced against the risks/means available/stratcomm incoherence is no longer the question. It has become “What do we do with the new conditions?
My closing thoughts - I'll reiterate one of my philosophical problems with US military power (stated from the perspective of a practitioner of same) - the danger of making it too easy to kill people, means you are too likely to kill people. If it isn't worth dying for, it isn't worth killing for. The point is not that I object to making war less lethal to the people we put in harm's way, or even more lethal to the target of our war making, it's that making it safer for us to kill has made us more likely to kill. Our doctrinal and policy analysis and frankly, fundamental ethics on the issue aren't anywhere near as advanced and refined as our technical ability.
Of course, going there meant that we secured the "eastern passage" for trade. At the same time, it put our noses into Spain's crumbling empire, Russia's attempts to control it and Japan and, finally, it put us smack in the middle of a collision course with the growing empire of Japan that eventually leads to Pearl Harbor and WWII.
Or, if we look back far enough, our first really expeditionary force to a foreign land in the name of National Interests was, in fact, Tripoli, Libya. In order to suppress the piratical Barbary tribes preying on shipping. At that time, our interests in the Mediterranean paled in comparison to England, France, Spain and Italy. None of whom were intent to snuff out the problem, but content to pay tribute. Some say it was because they could afford it and we couldn't. In any event, it did not preclude us from taking the lead nor using what amounts to our first SF operation to rally locals to take out the strong man.
I don't believe this sets a new precedent or that our modern efforts reflect any great upsurge in use of force or lethality, to put a stake in anything near or remotely referred to as National Interests. Did we go to Vera Cruz? Put marines in Singapore to stave off the Boxer Rebellion? Do I need to go down the list? We are, undoubtedly, much more proficient at it, but so is any given enemy who possesses similar arms technology meaning much more proficient at the lethality horizontally.
2) We aren't Globo Cops because we are all fuzzy and warm hearted towards the plight of any and all oppressed people. We secure the world trade routes and surrounding areas in our own interests. First to protect the ability for trade to flow freely between nations. Namely ours. In doing so, we remain strong and continue to exist as a free nation. Where it may benefit others or some, it is a benefit to ourselves in insuring this free flow of trade and access to resources. We have not had a world war on the scale of WWII since we undertook that greater responsibility, keeping trade open and the nation continually growing and safe.
Doing so keeps trade open for other states and the way to obtain resources. Lack of opportunity or demand for access to said resources was essentially the causes of the great wars and even the Cold War. We do what we can and where we can because, in the end, we do not want to expend the kind of money and blood we did in those wars to secure it for a greater world economy and, in the long run, greater peace. Pax Americana.
Who really wishes that England, France or Germany, or even China or Russia, undertakes these efforts when they are historically more selfish with control and access to these resources? Selfishness that, in the end, resulted in the great wars.
As for Kosovo, etc, our interests lay in keeping the Russian Bear and it's fellow travelers from gaining a greater strategic foothold in the Mediterranean coast and sea lanes. The Russian Bear did not die at the end of the Cold War. It simply went into hibernation and emerged a few pounds thinner, shedding it's burly winter coat to make it seem less threatening. It isn't a cute little teddy bear, it is a hungry bear that is perpetually looking for food and forage because it is geographically constrained by lack of substantial ports. It will eat what ever it can.
Second, as to the Globo cop issue and various democracy movements, this is castle warfare writ large upon the world. No castle ever remained safe from siege or destruction when it depended on being, and kept the main part of it's garrison, behind walls. It could not survive long if it only sent a few forces to protect trade shipments that could easily be overcome by bandits or other local warlords who were intent on gaining the goods and, sooner or later, the castle.
It lasted even less time when it had few or no allies that basically acted as either a trip line through which enemy forces had to traverse or as an auxillary force when the castle came under siege or had to fight outside the walls (preferrable). This concept keeps us "out there", keeps us moving the lands/barriers/armies outward to insure further security. In this case, as it has been since we conceived it after WWII, democratic nations with liberal markets, who by dent of their own self interest in retaining access to trade, resources and routes, prefer to align themselves with the most propserous and capable castle and garrison: the United States
Of course, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu would agree that the political will and the actual capital, resources and drives do not always match. Which means that, if we can put a little effort into it and achieve the same results, great. If it is overwhelming and can be put off until later, so be it. I submit, however, that such opportunities do not come around every two or three years, but in decades.
I also submit that something that even looks like and smells like freedom and democracy is another nail in the coffin of ideological foes, such as the Salafi trend, that have a long history of popping up to cause pain and aggravation every time the last stupid, tyrannical ideology decides to rear it's ugly head. They aren't going to go away overnight and they may try to use it to their advantage, but, just as all other foes, they eventually have to choke on it because there is no equality between liberty and tyranny. They may never go away, but they will become increasingly irrelevant.
3) As for Libya, it suits all of the purposes above. So, of course, would Syria, but we are not interested in provoking another world war or even great war in the Middle East with Iran, that fascist, religious occult pretending to be a republican democracy. At least, we aren't going to do so openly. Whatever we can give to the Syrian freedom cause, that is wonderful. If they can achieve it, better yet. If it puts a crimp in Iran's plans, fantastic. If it makes Iranians wish for and work for real freedom and democracy, as they say in Arabia, insh'allah.
Libya did not have the same kind of allies. Like Iraq and Saddam, Ghaddafi out stayed his usefulness for everyone. That does, indeed, make him a low hanging fruit (no pun intended) without any who would object to his demise. Free Libya is much better than Tyranny Libya or Libya in Chaos.
The question then is not whether Libya meets national interest check marks or whether a new, free and democratic state (we hope) pushes out the borders of liberty's security. The question is whether we have the political will and the capital to make it happen. The answer to that question is what remains ambiguous. I believe that, if we were going to do it, we should have hit him hard and early, taking out a maximum of his forces to reduce the time frame and carnage of the civil war. Sometimes, of course, our need to get political cover from "the world", along with apparent indecisiveness of Libya's position, can be detrimental to a good strategy and the reduction of "collateral damage" (ie, more and more civilian deaths, which, by this post must be accepted)
4) Last but not least, eleven score and some odd years ago, a group of men sat in a tiny room, freezing and damp in the winter, hot and sweaty in the summer, to bring forth on this continent a new nation. One that they outlined in a one page document that may have conceived the most truthful assessment of any political organization of mankind to date: that government is by the consent of the governed (even in tyrannies), that people will suffer these governments "while evils are sufferable" and that they have the right and the power to change it.
For most, this is somehow relegated to a form of exceptional-ism based on the unique convergence of Christian idealism, frontier individualism and a firm grounding a classical literature. That may be true for the birth of freedom and democracy, but the over all idea that people will change their governments is observable through out history. Our founders were all about what was observable in nature (Franklin, et al) It was not really an ingenious idea, it was simply that they chose to write it down as a rational, scientific statement and cause for revolt.
Where it gives rise to liberality and methods of self government, we should support it and push it along. Where it gives birth to some form of authoritarianism, but does not or cannot immediately threaten, then we leave it be and keep a close eye on it for future remediation or probable rebellion. Where some form of global, tyrannical ideology appears to be taking root, we should fight it.
What ought to be our imperative is the growth of freedom and democracy. Whether that comes first from liberalized markets or from ground up initiatives of citizens. These most often happen together though at different paces.
What is also clear is that we are in a new era of communication and information. Whatever ideas we hold dear, such as American Exceptional-ism or western culture or simply citizens of, being the only people capable of freedom and democracy, is not true. That this grand experiment can only formulate in a petri dish where Christian and "western" values exist together is not true.
What matters is the flow of information and the growth of rationality that tempers zealotry (of all forms) and overcomes ignorance (lack of knowledge) brought on by isolation in the greater part of the populations. We have within our grasp and ultimate control the great highway of information and liberty: the internet. Along with the opening of markets to liberal trading, it creates a windstorm of change in thinking and the conduit of human ideas that can no longer be limited by borders, the long routes of trade, armed resistance or by the suppression of materials (ie, books, pamphlets, etc).
We can observe this power by viewing face book pages, blogs, twitter, stat counters that show paths, users and countries on various websites. We can see it by the video and pictures uploaded on a round the clock basis, aggregating ideas and information faster and faster. In military parlance, these ideas are so far inside tyrants' OODA loop, they will never be able to match it.
It doesn't even have to be in every home. It only requires a few and then a few more. Even the most draconian attempts at suppression cannot defeat it. As the Egyptian revolutionaries observed: Tyrants fear the internet
Worse for the tyrants is that no modern state can do without it. They must organize and make transactions, banking, billing and ordering, on this network. Wherever it exists, regardless how much they attempt to restrict, people find a way to access it and the information therein.
What we can also observe via this wonderful device is another truth that our founders placed as the primary cause of their revolt: that men (not just men in the United States, but all mankind) are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. In essence, all men are born free and it is only the state and society that shapes him into either a slave or a free man. However, in the course of the Pursuit of Happiness (knowledge and property to sustain himself), he will realize which state he lives in, slave or free man, and will be unable to resist the comparison or the desire to obtain that original state of Liberty.
How can we observe this along with the power of "western ideas", specifically United States (ie, the idea of liberty as a natural state and desire)? Pictures of men and women holding up signs, in English, not French, Chinese or Russian, along with their native language, demanding Freedom. Who is that aimed at? The first, largest and most powerful force for liberty in the world: the United States. This is what makes the United States exceptional.
These signs appear in states that we have hitherto relegated to ignorance and eternal tyranny, largely through our own inability to penetrate the barriers against information and knowledge. Something that is no longer true. Knowledge tempers zeal, reacquainting men with their natural state and eventually demands liberty regardless of whatever false ideas on the natural state of man may come in between. Therefore, where men may live in and even propagate tyranny now, it cannot last forever.
This knowledge and demand for liberty is growing faster and faster, yet somehow we continue to resist it or, at least, have pushed the idea of defending, if not propagating, liberty to the end of the list. If not completely removing it from our list of national defense strategies and long term goals. We no longer speak of it in a forceful manner. Instead, we get washed out variations of "aspirations for self determination".
It leaves the question open: do we no longer believe that the truth of unalienable rights and liberty is self evident for all men?
Even if, in the long checklist of national interests, political will, available capital and cost in blood, we cannot or will not directly intervene, why is Freedom not THE MESSAGE? The message that at least gives hope to those longing to be free. Even those who are in nations that we cannot ascertain the final outcome or know that all the actors accept or embody that liberty, there is always someone or many someones who do and need to have hope. Who, in the end, need to see it as something to continue to fight for even if they are once again submerged into the darkness of tyranny.
In a world where information and freedom are rushing forward at the speed of light, it seems not only hypocritical to our founding, but ultimately self destructive not to place freedom at the fore front of our foreign policy and national security strategy.
We are attempting to preserve a status quo that no longer exists or is quickly coming to not exist in the near future. That preservation is based on the idea of remaining the leader of the "stable" world (because markets love stability) instead of the leader of the free world. A free world that is likely to encompass most of, if not the entire, world within the next century. We are acting like those grandees on Wall Street who, instead of seeing the folly of their lending ways and purchasing of garbage mortgage bonds, keep hold of and buying more garbage even as it crashes around us. Who is going to bail us out if we can't figure out that we are investing in the wrong products and organizations? No one.
If the United States is no longer the leader of the free world, then it will no longer define freedom. If it no longer defines freedom, then we will be once again tossed about, pushed and pulled by whatever forces are in power shaping that freedom. Are we willing to give that position to whatever becomes of authoritarian China or the Oligarchic Russia who do not have a long history of Liberty or the various struggles to improve it? How then does the United States insure it's prosperity and it's posterity for another two hundred years of generations to come? What then if a new tyrannical idea is born in the train of liberty purporting to be liberty itself? What is the danger to our long term security and existence?