The rapidly spreading chaos in Libya should give the American people pause, and may end up giving the U.S. military another item to add to its endless to-do list. Setting the stage for what might be called the battle for Tripoli, anti-government forces and rebel military units are moving from the country's apparently "liberated" east to face off against Moammar Gadhafi's Praetorian Guard of tribal and regime loyalists. The New York Times described "clusters of heavily armed men in mismatched uniforms clutching machine guns," "dozens of checkpoints operated by . . . plainclothes militiamen," and "machine-gun toting foreign mercenaries" stalking the capital, and compared the unfolding situation to the anarchy in Somalia.
The emerging Libyan civil war is significant not just for the bloodshed and instability it will visit on this Mediterranean powder keg. Libya has somewhere between 9.5 tons and 14 tons of mustard gas, according to intelligence sources cited by the Wall Street Journal. As Gadhafi's regime focuses on holding on to power, as the Libyan military splinters and as the country disintegrates, it's not difficult to imagine those stockpiles being left unguarded and falling into the hands of America's enemies. The candidates are numerous: al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb; a rogue Libyan faction; Gadhafi's mercenary army from Chad, Sudan and Niger; a post-Gadhafi regime; or even, if he survives, a post-uprising Gadhafi -- even more paranoid and more unhinged than the man Ronald Reagan once aptly described as "squalid" and "Looney Tunes."
Any of these scenarios would pose a significant threat to the United States and its closest allies, and making sure none of them transpire must be a priority as events unfold. Trusting the current or future Libyan government -- or governments, in the event of a fracturing of the country -- is simply not an option, which means Washington must contemplate using military force to pre-empt these materials from falling into worse hands.