In 1956, Britain’s Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, saw Egypt’s new president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, as a fascist riding a dangerous new wave of Arab nationalism. When Nasser seized control of the Suez Canal from its British and French owners, Eden was sure Nasser was an Arab Hitler and rejected any alternative to direct military action as “appeasement.” Guy Mollet, the French premier at the time, shared Eden’s opinion and joined with Britain and Israel in the attack on Egypt to remove Nasser.
When Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, of World War II fame, discovered Eden’s plan to intervene in Egypt, he asked Eden to explain his objective. Eden famously replied, “To knock Nasser off his perch!”
Montgomery scoffed, warning, “That’s not good enough.” He insisted that British and French military commanders needed more; they needed to know what the political aim was after Nasser was removed in order to plan the right kind of operation.
Ultimately, Eden, not Nasser, was removed from office. President Eisenhower, a lifelong opponent of European imperialism, withdrew American support for the intervention. Though Eisenhower shared Eden’s distrust of Nasser, he insisted that military means should be used only as a last resort. British and French forces withdrew. Not only was Eden’s reputation as a “man of peace” and a respected statesman destroyed, but Britain’s two centuries of predominance in the Middle East was ended.
To those advising President Obama, little Libya, with a population of less than 7 million on North Africa’s Mediterranean coast, not only looks like an easy target for American military power but also is the perfect laboratory for democratic experimentation. Put differently, remove the morally repugnant dictator - in this case Col. Moammar Gadhafi - and a new, more humane “social democracy” will emerge in Libya under Western tutelage - a new society devoid of poverty, scarcity, inequality, coercion and repression. This may be a wish-based strategy because it imagines a Libya with the cultural and economic foundations to embrace Western-style democracy. It is a Libya that does not exist, but its attraction to the president is real.
The neoconservatives harbor no such illusions. For them, the opportunity to intervene with American, British and French military power in a Muslim Arab country - one that borders Egypt, another troubled Muslim society with the potential to unravel the Camp David Accords - is too tempting to ignore. What unites Mr. Obama and the neocons, however, is the resolve to use U.S. armed forces as envisioned by the late Secretary of Defense Les Aspin: “to punish evildoers” at the whim of whoever sits in the White House and regardless of cost.
In London and Paris, more concrete interests may be at stake, including BP’s oil infrastructure and a desire to contain a crisis that otherwise might propel more unwanted Muslims in Europe’s direction. Whether direct military action is the best solution for Britain and France - the two powers most likely to commit ground troops in Libya - is, of course, very much open to debate. But it’s worth remembering in all three capitals - Washington, London and Paris - that the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Egypt in 1956, have all failed to deliver the promised strategic benefits.
Where Iraq is concerned, the American people will pay a heavy price for decades to come. In addition to financing American military operations in Iraq with a trillion dollars of borrowed money from China, Japan and Saudi Arabia, U.S. military power installed a Shiite Islamist, pro-Khomeini-type regime in Baghdad tied to Iran, an outcome that threatens the security of the entire Arabian Peninsula. In Afghanistan, the human, financial and strategic costs to American power and prestige continue to rise with the daily erosion of Pakistan’s fragile cohesion, involving dangerous implications for all of Central and Southwest Asia.
Military action is always a series of actions designed to induce the opponent to collapse, capitulate or negotiate. It’s too soon to know what the impact of events in Libya will be for President Obama. However, if the outcome he wanted was Col. Gadhafi’s removal, as he stated weeks ago when Libya’s civil war began, he should have asked what steps were required and whether they would actually work and then carefully measured what he and his country might gain against what he and his country might lose.
Col. Douglas Macgregor, a decorated combat veteran, is executive vice president of Burke-Macgregor Group. His newest book is “Warrior’s Rage” (Naval Institute Press, 2009).