Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 2011

What is it in the American character that causes us to think that military force should be used to rid a country like Libya of a tyrant who oppresses his people?

It is true that Americans have given moral support to oppressed peoples since the country's founding in 1776. Most Americans also believe that liberal democracy and individual freedom are universal values, and some claim they should be promoted even with occasional help from the U.S. military.

A crucial issue, however, is the potentially high cos, in American lives and treasure that too often follows military interventions abroad. This reality troubles Americans, as the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan show, and result in sharp divisions in Congress and among the public. Examples of recent interventions are:

Now Libya is the focus of debate in Washington on whether the Pentagon should be authorized to implement a no-fly policy to help overthrow another dictator.

Few doubt that Muammar Gaddafi runs a brutal regime and should be ousted. After all, it is argued, his agents caused the deaths of some 250 Americans in the 1988 bombing of Pam Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Earlier, in 1986,, his agents killed several American servicemen in Berlin, causing President Reagan to dispatch U.S. bombers to destroy his headquarters in Tripoli.

As civil war looms in Libya, several leading senators have urged the president to declare a no-fly zone across Libya. Senator John McCain stated in a television interview last week: "We can't risk allowing Gaddafi to massacre people from the air." ("Hill urges stronger U.S. response," Washington Post, March 7)

Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, argues that bombing military airfields in Libya should be considered in order to deny their use by Gaddafi's air force. Senator Joe Lieberman, who also favors the no-fly option, says the United States is obligated "to help those who are offering an alternative future for Libya." ("Discord Grows in Washington on Libya Role," New York Times, March 8)

The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial (March 7) titled "Obama's Libyan Abdication," called for active U.S. efforts, including military assistance, to aid the rebels to overthrow the Gaddafi regime: "The Libyans want to liberate Libya. The issue is how the U.S. can help them do it."

The pressure for military action precipitated a strong rebuttal from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen. Gates dismissed talk about a no-fly zone with this blunt assessment:

"Let's just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libyan territory to destroy the air defenses ... and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that's the way it starts." ("Gates Warns of the Risks of Imposing a No-Flight Zone over Libya," Washington Post, March 3)

As Barack Obama faces mounting calls from politicians, the media, and human rights advocates to use military force in Libya, he should resist these pressures for two reasons: U.S. forces are stretched so thin by protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that another intervention in Libya to oust a dictator may be a "bridge too far." Another reason is that democratic forces in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East will be discredited if the United States uses force once again in an Arab country.

Now is a time for America to show restraint in its dealings with the Arab countries.

File last modified on Monday, 14-MAR-2010 10:05 AM EST

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