We have launched many military interventions since then. And today, as Moammar Gaddafi looks vulnerable and Libya descends into violence, familiar voices are shouting, once again: “Quick, intervene, do something!” It could be a low-cost win for democracy in the region. But before we aid the Libyan rebels or establish a no-fly zone, let’s review what we’ve learned about intervening since we pulled out of Vietnam.
The past 37 years have been replete with U.S. interventions. Some have succeeded, such as our actions in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), the Persian Gulf War (1991) and the Balkans (1995-2000). Some were awful blunders, such as the attempted hostage rescue in Iran (1980), landing the Marines in Lebanon (1982) or the Somalia intervention (1992-94).
Some worked in the short run, but not the longer term — such as the occupation of Haiti in 1994. Others still hang in the balance, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, consuming hundreds of billions of dollars and wrecking thousands of American lives. Along the way, we’ve bombed a few tyrants such as Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi himself, operated through proxies in Central America, and stood ready with fly-overs, deployments, mobility exercises and sail-bys across the globe.
I’ve thought about military interventions for a long time — from before my service in Vietnam to writing a master’s thesis at Fort Leavenworth to leading NATO forces in the Kosovo war. In considering Libya, I find myself returning to the guidelines for intervention laid out by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in 1984. The world has changed a great deal since then, so I’ve adapted and updated his vision to develop my own rules for when the United States should deploy its blood and treasure in operations far fromhome.
Understand the national interests at stake, and decide if the result is worth the cost.
We went into Lebanon with a reinforced battalion of Marines in 1982 because we believed that it was in our national interest to stabilize the situation after the Israelis had been forced out of Beirut. But after the terrorist bombing of their barracks killed 241 U.S. service members the next year, we pulled out. After the tragedy, any benefits seemed to pale in light of the cost and continuing risks.
In 1999, when we launched the NATO air campaign against Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, President Bill Clinton had to state publicly that he didn’t intend to use ground troops. He did so in an effort to limit the costs of an initiative that the public and Congress did not consider to be in our nation’s vital interest. The administration and I, as the NATO commander in Europe, were in a difficult position, and Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic knew it. But what Milosevic didn’t understand was that once we began the strikes — with NATO troops deployed in neighboring countries and the Dayton Peace Agreement to enforce in Bosnia — NATO couldn’t afford to lose. And the United States had a vital interest in NATO’s success, even if we had a less-than-vital interest in Kosovo.