Hold onto your wallets: The Department of Defense, seeking to avoid budget cuts, is looking around for new, expensive opportunities for U.S. military involvement in improbable situations in North Africa and the Middle East, this time in Libya, and it may require some determination to hold it off.
The Pentagon is lined up for another $20 billion in budget cuts starting in the new year unless Congress can arrive at some agreement to head off another round of sequestration. The chances of that occurring grow slimmer with each passing day. The House, led by Speaker John A. Boehner, the gold standard of Washington non-leadership, remains opposed to everything constructive, most recently immigration reform.
In any case, no one should think that the cut in the Pentagon budget, which will still stand at an immodest $507 billion even after losing $20 billion, will result in the Chinese assuming command of Fort Apache. The Department of Defense will still have plenty to do and plenty of money to do it.
Nonetheless, the brass’ newest bright idea is that the United States should train the Libyan armed forces. According to Adm. William H. McRaven, top officer of the U.S. Special Operations Command, speaking Saturday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif., the military is thinking about training a Libyan force of 5,000 to 7,000 and an additional counterterrorism force. Training might take place in Bulgaria or Italy. (By the way, the Americans and British were training the Libyan Army when I visited Benghazi in 1964-1965.
The new project would be carried out by AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command. It is scheduled to have its budget reduced next year by a tenth and its headquarters staff, in Stuttgart, Germany, reduced by a fifth as part of sequestration. What a happy development for AFRICOM the new Libya mission would represent.
Here is the case for it. The United States provided intelligence and air support to the forces that overthrew and killed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The new status quo there, although arguably preferable to Mr. Gadhafi’s sometimes loony rule from 1969 to 2011, can be politely described as chaotic. Heavily armed militias, loyal to tribes, commanders and towns, run loose, outside the control of the alleged central government, which has no effective security forces at its command.
Oil production, upon which the Libyan economy is almost entirely dependent, has dropped by 85 percent so far this year. The militias’ latest stunt is to start their own oil company. The attackers of the U.S. office in Benghazi in 2012 have not been arrested, protected as they are by militias. The Libyan prime minister was kidnapped by a militia last month. Fighting involving militias in Tripoli, the capital, last weekend claimed at least 43.
So Libya is a mess. But why is fixing it a project the United States should undertake — unless finding work for the U.S. military to preserve its budget from cuts the rest of the U.S. government is going to endure makes the Libya endeavor worthwhile?
In my view, it does not. If the Libyans don’t want their country to continue becoming a poverty-ridden pig-sty, then it is up to them to resolve their problems. That is not to say that doing so will be easy. Libya has for years been divided into Cyrenaica, the east, Tripolitania, the west, and Fezzan, the south. Its people are still tribal in orientation. At the same time, to some degree, first under King Idris and then under Mr. Gadhafi, they were able to work together to use the country’s oil resources to the more or less common good of Libya’s 6 million people.
This is not America’s problem. If the Pentagon is spared budget cuts so it can try to save Libya, inter alia, the cuts will have to come out of the hide of other parts of the U.S. budget. Some Washington politicians are eyeing important programs such as Social Security and Medicare as possibilities for cuts to keep intact the Pentagon budget, although they have to be aware of how unjustifiable that would be.
As for the Defense Department and particularly the Africa Command, created in 2008, they need to join the other parts of the U.S. government in taking their medicine, unless, in defiance of probability, the White House and parts of Congress can agree on some sensible allocation of America’s resources. Money for U.S. military involvement in Libya should be close to last on the list of U.S. spending priorities.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org,412-263-1976).