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Libya: America’s New Nation Building Commitment (Mali Next)

Regular readers know that we’ve never been optimists about the results of President Obama’s decision to wage an air war in Libya against the Qaddafi regime. The consequences of the war have more than justified our concern; this story in the FT, about the ongoing tribalist chaos around the town of Bani Walid, only underlines the utter fecklessness of the new Libyan government and the dangerous chaos taking root in that country.

As usual, Americans (liberals in Libya, conservatives in Iraq) place a high value on the rituals of democracy. Like Spanish conquistadors ‘converting’ the Indians to Christianity, we think that if we make our Arab clients say the sacred words and perform the holy rituals we have turned them into democrats and their countries into functioning pluralistic polities.

But state building is much, much more complicated than sprinkling holy water over a new constitution. State building means above all else building an army that can keep order. Without that, you have nothing. Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful phrases were hollow pieties and vain aspirations without George Washington’s army to give them force.

We are going to have to build a state in Libya, and also in Mali now, as a result of the President’s war. With luck we can get the Europeans to chip in: Libya is much too close to home for the EU to ignore it. But this is going to take a lot of work and a lot of money, and there is no way the United States can avoid getting stuck with a substantial chunk of the bill.

It would be nice to ignore problems in faraway lands, but in the age of al-Qaeda America simply does not have that option as often as we might wish. Organized and armed terror groups can exploit chaos or even take power themselves; the United States for its own protection cannot allow global jihadis to establish safe havens or to take over national governments.

Obama’s splendid little war in Libya has created serious long term strategic problems for the United States and saddled us with commitments and responsibilities we do not want, do not need but cannot shirk. Every day the news brings more evidence that, like it or not, we’ve got more work to do in the Middle East, and it is exactly the kind of expensive, frustrating and dangerous grunt work that President Obama took office promising to end.

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