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How The Mission Creeps

Donald Rumsfeld, chatting with Greta Van Susteren last night, illustrates exactly why I fear that a no fly zone policy in Libya may not be politically sustainable. A few years ago, Gaddafi was back in the “good guy” box and John McCain wanted to supply him with American military equipment so that he, like his colleagues in Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia could repress politically dissidents with a Made In The USA spirit. But now that he’s back in the “bad guy” box, his continued existence in power is some kind of grave physical threat to the American people:

VAN SUSTEREN: In terms of Qaddafi and Libya, he doesn’t have the nuclear weapons. He supposedly dismantled that. How do we know that he doesn’t have biological weapons?

RUMSFELD: Well, that is — to go back to the title of my book, that’s an unknown unknown. We — we — he may. In fact, it’s a known unknown. I don’t know he does. We do know that he’s had an interest in chemical weapons over a period of time, but I don’t recall hearing anything about biological weapons.

VAN SUSTEREN: I guess the reason why I have some element of concern because he’s obviously threatened us. I mean, we’ve got our — we’ve got our flyovers. We’ve got our military action. And he says that, you know, he’s going to fight back. And I never know if it’s just sort of an empty threat of someone who’s pathetic or someone who truly does have nuclear or biological or chemical weapons that we simply don’t know about and that he could fight back.

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RUMSFELD: I just don’t know the answer, but there’s no question he’s a person who’s engaged in terrorist acts. He’s sponsored them, dealt with terrorist organizations. And he is — he obviously didn’t stay in power for 40 years by being stupid. He’s intelligent and clever and opportunistic. He would not think of trying to compete against our armies or navies or air forces. He would deal — whatever he did would be asymmetric and it would be something that would be unconventional and very likely — and possibly not even something in Libya, something conceivably elsewhere in the world.

You could easily imagine the Libya situation ending up like the first Gulf War — a decent military outcome that doesn’t quite achieve the political result that was hoped for and that leads, over time, to growing US political demand for an additional war to “finish the job.” After all, as American pretensions to global military hegemony become increasingly impossible to sustain in reality, there seems to be a need to conjure up increasingly shambolic big bads for us to fight. Libya could fit the bill nicely.