Early Lessons from Libya

Fighting rages in Tripoli, and Muammar Qaddafi’s regime hangs by a thread. Although much remains unknown, it is worthwhile to ponder the next steps, as well as look back on the assumptions that guided U.S. policymakers to become involved in the first place, and that may shape U.S. foreign policy going forward.

Specifically, while Qaddafi’s ouster will be a good thing for Libya, the lessons that are likely to be drawn from it, and especially of the U.S. role in it, might not be good for the United States. That is because the Libya story will be fit into a familiar narrative, one in which the United States is portrayed as uniquely suited to be the world’s government, with the U.S. military as a global constabulary, responding to threats large and small, distant and proximate. The Libyan intervention, according to the defenders of the status quo, demonstrates that there is no alternative.

Most Americans disagree. Such an approach to the world has taxed our military, and overburdened U.S. taxpayers, with no obvious benefit to U.S. national security. If Qaddafi falls, and what comes after him is a marked improvement, that doesn’t mean that the U.S. military needed to become involved, and it doesn’t mean that it must do so in other places, or in similar circumstances, in the future.

First, the most important question: Who will replace Qaddafi? We might know more about the rebel movement than we did in March, to the extent that the Transitional National Council represents them. But does it? (Recall Paul Wolfowitz’s response at an event at AEI in March. Asked who the rebels were, he told the questioner to “Google and find out”). More to the point, does the TNC command sufficient popular support that it will have the authority to govern Libya? We may soon find out.

And what does U.S. intervention in Libya signal for the future of U.S. foreign policy? Will U.S. warplanes soon be flying over Syria? Will U.S. bombs soon be raining down on Iran? Or on any other country that has the misfortune of being ruled by an incompetent or venal government? Once, the answer was clearly no; now we just don’t know.

When President Obama chose to intervene in Libya, with authorization from the UN Security Council, but not from the U.S. Congress, he violated nearly every one of the principles of the venerable Weinberger-Powell Doctrine: the war didn’t advance a vital U.S. security interest, and it lacked public support, a clear military objective, and an obvious exit strategy. It will be unfortunate if the likely outcome of the war in Libya – Qaddafi’s ouster – is used to repudiate the W-P doctrine once and for all. If it does, we are likely to see even more U.S. interventions, in a whole host of places that have not even the slightest connection to U.S. national security.

Finally, there is the question of Congress’s role in foreign policy. As the war dragged on, I was appalled by the rhetorical gymnastics that the Obama administration employed to evade the Constitution’s provision that vests the war power exclusively with the Congress. It will be tragic if the Libyan experience is taken as proof that this portion of the Constitution is null and void. Those who were willing to challenge the Obama administration’s claims should not abandon their posts just because Qaddafi’s forces have.

A few weeks before the start of the U.S./NATO campaign against Libya, Malou Innocent reminded us of British philosopher John Stuart Mill’s thoughts on revolution and political reform. In his classic text A Few Words on Nonintervention Mill explained that the subjects of an oppressive ruler must achieve freedom for themselves. And he worried “that if they have not sufficient love of liberty to be able to wrest it from merely domestic oppressors, the liberty which is bestowed on them by other hands than their own, will have nothing real, nothing permanent.”

That isn’t inevitable in the case of Libya, and I hope that it doesn’t play out that way. The Libyan people were clearly not well-served by the clownish, megalomaniacal Qaddafi, a man so naturally farcical that it is difficult to distinguish the genuine article from the SNL spoof of him. I am happy that the Libyan people appear poised to take control of their country. And I wish them well.