Libya: Operational Success, Strategic Failure: Intervention May Set Off A Nuclear Proliferation Spiral

Last week, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Alter posed a tantalizing question: “You think Obama’s been a bad president? Prove it.” More specifically, Alter challenged the president’s detractors to identify specific administration policy failures. On Monday, conservative David Frum responded to Alter’s throwing down the gauntlet with three examples of the President’s poor decision-making.

I came up with my own list of the president’s poor policy choices, which left-leaning bloggers have disputed. Of these decisions, Obama’s Libyan intervention may seem like his least obvious policy failure. So far, it appears an unmitigated operational success, achieved with far less blood and a lower price tag than the war in Iraq. That said, many on the left are confusing the current operational victory with the strategic validation of Samantha Power’s so-called “responsibility to protect“, which advocates military intervention on purely humanitarian grounds.

The problem is that this policy sacrificed America’s vital interest of nuclear non-proliferation to achieve the limited strategic objective of ridding Libya of an unpleasant dictator.

Obama’s Intervention Increased the Probability of a Low Likelihood, but Extremely Catastrophic Event

Source: Sean Patrick Hazlett

One likely reason that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was reluctant to support the Libyan mission is that it simply did not make sense from a risk-reward perspective. By intervening, the United States dramatically increased the probability that Qaddafi would no longer retain power in Libya. That said, whether or not Qaddafi remained in power would likely have had minimal impact on American vital interests.

However, Obama’s intervention increased the likelihood of a rather low probability, but extremely catastrophic event — a future nuclear crisis in the Middle East. The likelihood has increased because Obama’s intervention set a precedent that could spur a Middle Eastern nuclear proliferation spiral.

The field of game theory explains why.

Game Theory for Proliferating Dictators

Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton pursued rational policies that punished potential proliferators. Clinton punished Saddam by launching Operation Desert Fox in 1998, and Bush ultimately overthrew Hussein’s regime in 2003. The only case in which neither president took a particularly bellicose stance was with North Korea. Both presidents had calculated that the country’s nuclear program was sufficiently advanced that antagonizing the regime was not worth the risk of triggering a nuclear crisis.

This relatively consistent policy from administration to administration provided a dominant strategy for would-be proliferating dictators: Cooperate with the United States and disclose your WMD programs, and you will survive (Qaddafi). If you don’t, your days will be numbered (Saddam). Those who had already acquired nuclear capability would be able to force concessions by threatening confrontation (Kim Jong Il). The aim of American foreign policy, therefore, was to prevent more dictators from acquiring nuclear capability.

Source: Photos from BBC News

As the decision matrix above shows, any rational would-be proliferator should cooperate with the United States in disclosing its WMD programs. Those who did not, perished. However, by intervening in Libya, the Obama administration turned the proliferating dictator’s decision calculus on its head.

Source: Photos from BBC News

Now, any would-be proliferator knows that the United States will punish them whether or not they cooperate. Furthermore, if they cooperate, it will be easier for the United States to defang them, as Qaddafi has recently learned. According to the dictates of game theory, the dictator’s default response to ensure his own survival is to defect, no matter what. And the result of further defections is more nuclear proliferators.

The Next Nuclear Proliferation Spiral

Source: Map from the CIA, Radiation symbol from the DOE

As wary dictators in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia monitor each other, the continued turmoil from the Arab Spring, a nuclear-armed Israel, and a United States committed to overthrowing dictatorships regardless of their prior cooperation, the incentive to begin or to continue their nuclear programs increases. Fearing their regional neighbors, and feeling pressure from their democratically empowered Islamic masses, both Egypt and Turkey may also decide to pursue nascent nuclear programs as well.

The end result could be six nuclear-armed nations on hair-trigger alert, and centered on the majority of the world’s petrochemical resources. Even the slightest miscalculation by any of these nations could result in a Middle Eastern nuclear Armageddon, and ultimately, global economic ruin.


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