Libyan crisis presents U.S. budget battle opportunity
WASHINGTON -- The middle of a budget battle is a heck of a time for a foreign crisis. The United States now finds itself in the midst of defining moments both domestically, with debates playing out on the future of government spending, and internationally, with the rapidly unfolding revolutions in the Middle East. The repercussions of each on America’s role in the world are both profound and intertwined. So far the budget debates on Capitol Hill have resided in the realm of the philosophical: How much should we cut? Soon they will have to get practical: What to cut? And those questions have to be tied to what results we want to achieve and what is worth the investment, including in our interventions overseas.
President Barack Obama faces a big challenge in Libya in defining the right level of engagement for the United States. The implications are enormous. The outcome of the rolling revolutions in the region will affect American national interests for decades, especially if they replace regimes like Iran’s. So while the stakes are evident, the question is how the current debate on America’s budget will impact our willingness and ability to take a leading or defining role overseas as events rapidly unfold. Yes, the military challenges in Libya are complex and costly, the end-game unclear, and the opposition force largely unknown. The political risks are also evident; President Obama has been accused at the same time of dithering and of rushing into an ill-defined mission (chiefly by Members of Congress eager to be consulted). Couple that with a maxed-out national credit card and military resources stretched in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Obama’s caution is understandable.
On the other hand, this particular crisis happens to include elements that one could usually only wish for -- a clear humanitarian crisis precipitated by an obvious bad guy, a more-than-willing coalition of European partners ready for action, and (critically) the overt support of regional Arab governments. If Obama’s stated goal of acting multilaterally plays out here to allow a successful U.S. intervention with a substantially shared cost, it could increase America’s capability to influence the largely organic democratization of the broader Middle East. This is especially true if the momentum effect continues from yet another successful overthrow of an authoritarian regime in the region. It will be further enhanced if American taxpayers see a valuable national security return on a reasonable military cost. Appropriate investments in military force can help prevent war, just as good investments in development can prevent or minimize conflict. It goes beyond a Libyan “no-fly zone” to include how America can use development funds to help keep Egypt and others on a sustainable democratic path. How President Obama chooses to invest American power, both hard and soft, in today’s Middle East could save billions of dollars in costly interventions in the future. But both cost money now. Given our dire budget challenges, Americans are rightly skeptical of another costly foreign intervention, so the president still needs to make the sale.
But the time for that case is right; the grand debate at home on the size of government needs to move from generalities to include a real discussion on how we invest to put America in the best position a decade from now. The president made clear in his State of the Union address his vision for investing at home in America’s future, now it’s time to clarify the vision for investment that secures America’s role in the world.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.