Tag: Libya

Libya Begets Syria?

A little over a year ago, as members of the Obama administration were pondering military intervention in Libya, skeptics (including The Skeptics) pressed them to explain how that situation differed from other comparable cases elsewhere in the world. If Libya, why not Yemen? Why not Bahrain? Why not Syria? We may soon learn the answer to that last question. And their too-permissive—or merely haphazard—approach a year ago might pave the way for an intervention in Syria that would be ill-advised, if not disastrous.

At the time of the Libya debate (to the extent that there was one), the president and his foreign-policy advisers dismissed concerns that the intervention in Libya would set a precedent. “It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs,” President Obama said in a televised speech to the nation on March 28, 2011. But, he continued:

that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country—Libya—at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale… To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and, more profoundly, our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.

At other times, the administration alluded to a loose set of guidelines to explain why it might choose to use force, guidelines which the Libya case met but other cases supposedly did not. These included the likelihood that a large-scale loss of life was imminent; the belief that prompt military action would prevent this violence; and the support of the international community, ideally a formal sanction in the UNSC (absent that, the approval of a regional body, such as the Arab League, might suffice).

Notably absent was sufficient consideration of whether our vital strategic interests were at stake. They were not in Libya, and they are not in Syria.

We should strive to avoid foreign intervention in all but very rare cases. Because getting in is always much easier than getting out, the burden of proof must always be on those making the case for war, not those advising against.

Beyond that, we must know what mission the U.S. military has been tasked with performing. We must have a reasonable estimate of the likelihood that it will achieve its mission. And we must have some sense of the likely costs in blood and treasure. Finally, we are a nation of laws, not of men—and decidedly not of one man. The president has very little authority to send troops into harm’s way, and he has none when U.S. security is not at stake (a criteria that Barack Obama endorsed as a senator but abandoned when he assumed a higher office). If the Obama administration is considering military action to remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, it should obtain formal congressional authorization for such action. And it should do that before going to the United Nations.

No other country is afforded such choices. No other country is able to project power over great distances and on very short notice. No other country has a track record of frequent foreign intervention, even when such operations have no direct connection to advancing our own security. This pattern of behavior constitutes our unique power problem. It is precisely because the United States has used force on numerous occasions over the past two decades that we need a particularly stringent set of criteria governing our future interventions. There is an almost endless parade of aggrieved parties calling on Uncle Sam to save them from harm. And when Washington refuses, or merely drags its heels, they will say: You fought to save Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, why do you then refuse to aid Muslims in Northern Africa or the Levant? The United States must have a ready answer.

But the Obama administration, cheered on or goaded by liberal and neoconservative hawks, does not have one. Yet. And its halting signals are likely to embolden those calling for yet another war.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Will Obama’s Libya ‘Victory’ Aid Re-Election Bid?

It is well established that presidents do not gain much of anything when they launch unsuccessful military ventures. However, they generally don’t gain much from successful ones either. The public does not seem to be interested in rewarding—or even remembering—foreign policy success.

The data are now in on the most recent such military venture: the expedition in Libya. The United States and its NATO allies materially supported popular rebels in their ultimately successful efforts to overthrow the decidedly unpopular regime of Muammar Qaddafi, efforts that resulted in the terminal demise of Qaddafi, a certifiable devil du jour in the American mind for decades. And all this at no cost in American lives.

After the rebel success and the death of the dictator in November, CBS News conducted a poll and asked a fairly mild question about the mission. It revealed that the public was quite capable of containing its enthusiasm for the venture, no matter how successful it may seem to have been:

Although it seems unlikely the venture will hurt President Obama’s reelection prospects, it seems equally unlikely it will furnish him with any real bragging rights.

The same thing happened in 1999 during Bill Clinton’s war over Kosovo, a venture that seemed considerably more risky and that inspired much more attention. As the bombs were being dropped there in support of the persecuted Albanian side, quite a few press accounts argued that the presidential ambitions and political future of Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, hung in the balance. From the standpoint of public opinion, the Kosovo venture seems to have been a success, not the least because no American lives were lost. But when Gore launched his campaign for the presidency a few months later, he scarcely thought it important or memorable enough to bring up.

And of course there is the legendary inability of George H. W. Bush to garner much lasting electoral advantage from the Gulf War of 1991. Although the success in that huge and dramatic victory caused even his ratings on the handling of the economy to rise notably, this effect was reversed within days in the polls. His slide continued into electoral defeat in the next year.

Lesser accomplishments seem to have been at least as unrewarding. Nobody gave much credit to Bush for his earlier successful intervention in Panama, to Dwight Eisenhower for a successful venture into Lebanon in 1958, to Lyndon Johnson for success in the Dominican Republic in 1965, to Jimmy Carter for husbanding an important Middle East treaty in 1979, to Ronald Reagan for a successful invasion of Grenada in 1983 or to Bill Clinton for sending troops to help resolve the Bosnia problem in 1995. Although it is often said that the successful Falklands War of 1982 helped British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the elections of 1983, any favorable effect is confounded by the fact that the economy was improving impressively at the same time.

Even Harry Truman, who presided over the massive triumph in World War II, saw his approval plummet to impressive lows within months after the war because of domestic concerns.

And surely the ultimate case is that of Britain’s Winston Churchill. After brilliantly holding the country together during that war—at times, it seemed that the only thing the country had going for it was his rhetoric—he was summarily voted out of office a few weeks after its end. Or, as he put it, “At the outset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for the five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.”

In his perhaps-ironically titled book Triumph and Tragedy, Churchill recalls that, when the news about his electoral defeat arrived, his wife suggested, “It may well be a blessing in disguise.” Churchill replied, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.” Other victors have had reason to express similar sentiments.

Cross-posted from “The Skeptics” at the National Interest.

Wittgenstein, Private Language, and Secret Law

One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right.’ — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §258

Among the arguments for which the great 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is famous, perhaps the best known—and most controversial—is his argument for the impossibility of a truly “private language.” Since Wittgenstein’s own language was, if not quite “private,” notoriously opaque, it’s a matter of some controversy exactly what the argument is, but here’s a very crude summary of one common interpretation:

Language is, by it’s nature, a rule-governed enterprise. Under normal circumstances, for instance, I use words correctly when I say “there’s a yellow school bus outside,” just in case there is a yellow school bus outside. If, instead, there’s a blue Prius, then I may be lying, or trying to make some sort of signally unfunny joke, or confused about either the facts or about what words mean—but I am, one way or another, using the words “incorrectly.” And indeed, the only way words like “yellow” and “school bus” can have any specific meaning is if they’re correctly applied to some things, but not to others.

Now suppose I decide to invent my own private language, meant to describe my own internal sensations and mental states, maybe for the purpose of recording them in a personal diary. On the first day, I experience a particular sensation I decide to call “S,” and record in my diary: “Today I felt S.” As time passes, on some days I write S to describe my private sensations, and on other days maybe I come up with different labels—maybe T, U, and V. This certainly looks like a private language, but there’s a problem: each time I write down “S,” the idea is suppose to be that I’m recording that I had the same sensation I had the first day—S—and not T, U, or V. But what’s the criteria for “the same”? What makes it true that my sensation on day 27 really is “more like” the sensation S that I had on day 1, and not V, which I first had on day 16? How do I know that this new sensation is really an S and not a V? (Say S was an itch in my hand; will I be correct to use S to refer to an itch in my shoulder? Or a pain in my hand? Or for that matter a pain in my shoulder?) The only criterion is that it seems or feels that way to me. But in that case, I’m not really engaged in a rule-governed language system at all, because in effect S applies to whatever I decide it does. Since I can never really be wrong, it doesn’t really make sense to say I’m ever right in my use either. Since the terms are truly private, there’s no difference between “correctly applying S” and “specifying in greater detail what S means.” What looked like a “private language” was actually just a kind of pantomime of a true, rule-governed language.

I found myself thinking of Wittgenstein and his private language argument, oddly enough, when thinking about the various forms of “secret law” and “secret legal interpretations” that increasingly govern our endless War on Terror. Consider, for instance, the secret legal memorandum justifying the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, discussed in an October 8 New York Times piece:

The legal analysis, in essence, concluded that Mr. Awlaki could be legally killed, if it was not feasible to capture him, because intelligence agencies said he was taking part in the war between the United States and Al Qaeda and posed a significant threat to Americans, as well as because Yemeni authorities were unable or unwilling to stop him.

Whether or not one agrees with the substantive principle articulated here, this at least sounds like a real rule limiting the discretion of the executive. Except…who decides when a capture is “not feasible” (as opposed to merely risky, costly, or inconvenient)? The same executive who is meant to apply and be bound by the rule. Who determines when the threat posed by a citizen is “significant” enough to permit targeting? Again, the executive.

This is not, one might object, a wholly “private” interpretive problem, because the Office of Legal Counsel provides some kind of quasi-independent check: it will occasionally tell even a president that what he wants to do isn’t legal. But in that case, the president can simply do what Barack Obama did in the case of his intervention in Libya: keep asking different legal advisers until one of them gives you the answer you want, then decide that the more favorable opinion overrides whatever OLC had concluded.

Similar considerations apply to the “secret law” of surveillance. The FBI may issue National Security Letters for certain specific types of records—including “toll billing records”—without judicial approval, but these secret demands must at least be “relevant to an authorized investigation.” A weak limit, we might think, but at least a limit. Yet, again, the apparent limitation is illusory: it is the Justice Department itself that determines what may count as an “authorized investigation.” When Congress initially passed the Patriot Act a decade ago, an “authorized investigation” meant a “full investigation” predicated on some kind of real evidence of wrongdoing. Just a few years later, though, the attorney general’s guidelines were changed to permit their use in much more speculative “preliminary investigations,” and soon enough, the majority of NSLs were being used in such preliminary investigations. Needless to say, “relevance” too is very much in the eye of the beholder.

In most of these cases, the prospects for external limitation are slim. First, of course, anyone who disagreed with the executive’s secret interpretation would have to find out about it—which may happen only years after the fact in whatever unknowable percentage of cases it ever happens at all. Then they’d have to overcome the extraordinary deference of our court system to assertions of the State Secrets Privilege just to be able to have a court consider whether the government had acted illegally. In practice, then, the executive is defining the terms of, and interpreting, the same rules that supposedly bind it.

The usual thing to say about this scenario is that it shows the importance of checks and balances in preventing the law from being perverted or abused. If we think there is at least a rough analogy between these cases and Wittgenstein’s diarist writing in a “private language,” though, we’ll see that this doesn’t go quite far enough. What we should say, rather, is that these are cases where “secret law,” like “private language” is not merely practically dangerous but conceptually incoherent. They are not genuine cases of “legal interpretation” at all, but only a kind of pantomime. Perhaps what we should say in these cases is not that the president or the executive branch may have violated the law—as though there were still, in general, some background binding principles—but that in these institutional contexts one simply cannot speak of actions as “in accordance with” or “contrary to” the law at all.  Where the possibility of external correction is foreclosed, the objectionable and unobjectionable decisions alike are, inherently, lawless.

Of Qaddafi and Kim Kardashian

Last week on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, President Obama discussed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the 2012 Republican presidential field, and ubiquitous Hollywood socialite, Kim Kardashian. But the conversation got really interesting when it veered to the recent intervention in Libya.

Obama said that with the arrival of the Arab Spring, the late Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi had an opportunity “to finally loosen his grip on power and peacefully transition to democracy. We gave him ample opportunity and he wouldn’t do it.” On the former leader’s killing, Obama said, “There’s a reason after [Osama] bin Laden was killed, for example, we didn’t release the photograph. I think that there’s a certain decorum with which you treat the dead even if it’s somebody who’s done terrible things.”

Hmmm, decorum. To some in the Beltway it may seem tired and trite to hear that U.S. foreign policy is flagrantly hypocritical when it comes to the subject of human rights. But it’s nonetheless noteworthy to hear prominent American leaders openly advocate intervening abroad in places like Libya in advance of the universal human aspiration to be free while continuing to support Middle East client states that repress their own people. Sadly, President Obama and other American leaders, especially in the wake of the momentous Arab Spring, are often perceived as liberty’s worst emissaries.

For numerous strategic and historical reasons, no American government has intervened militarily in countries such as Algeria, Jordan, or Yemen in defense of human rights. In Saudi Arabia, a long-time U.S. partner, homosexuals, apostates, and drug smugglers can be sentenced to execution, sometimes by beheading. In extreme cases, the convict’s body is crucified in public. And yet, the same U.S. government that offers unflinching support to the Saudi Kingdom led from behind for an intervention in Libya to stop an alleged massacre in Benghazi. In neighboring Egypt, meanwhile, for 29 years the U.S. government showered former President Hosni Mubarak with praise, despite his widespread use of torture and systematic repression of political prisoners. Washington also continues to support and arm the regime in Bahrain, which deliberately kills unarmed protesters and oppresses its people.

To promote human rights in Libya while supporting some of the world’s most heinous tyrannies may reflect America’s geopolitical preferences, but it makes a mockery of human rights and reveals an enormous discrepancy between what America claims to be doing and what it actually does. As much as Obama and his defenders want to strut around and promote their triumph over Moammar Qaddafi, people in the Middle East and around the world are well aware of this discrepancy. Such policies are not only abhorrent but also detrimental to America’s long-term interests. Advancing liberty is a painful and arduous process, but it can be done, and often independent of U.S. government efforts.

Cross-Posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Qaddafi’s Death Does Not Legitimize U.S. Intervention in Libya

The death of Muammar Qaddafi is good news in that it should enable the United States to immediately terminate all military operations in Libya, and to turn over responsibility for security in the country to the recognized leaders of the new government.

Qaddafi’s death does not validate the original decision to launch military operations without authorization from Congress. The Libyan operation did not advance a vital national security interest, a point that former secretary of defense Robert Gates stressed at the time. Qaddafi could have been brought down by the Libyan people, but the Obama administration’s decision to overthrow him may now implicate the United States in the behavior of the post-Qaddafi regime. That is unfair to the American people, and to the Libyan people who can and must be held responsible for fashioning a new political order.

As we ponder the welcome news of Qaddafi’s capture, we should also recall the lessons from Iraq, and as they have played out in Libya. The fall of Baghdad in April 2003 did not signal the end of the Iraq war; likewise, the capture of Tripoli by anti-Qaddafi forces in August 2011 didn’t end the fighting there. I worry, too, that just as the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 didn’t end the Iraq War that pro-Qaddafi forces will continue to resist the new government there.

All Americans hope that that is not the case, that the fighting will cease immediately, and that the new leaders in Libya can quickly set about to reconcile the differences between the many Libyan factions, and U.S. military personnel can turn their attention to matters of vital concern to U.S. national security.

How Much Should Washington Subsidize European Defense?

Illustration by John Camejo for the Washington Times

In today’s Washington Times, I argue that commentators should not take a victory lap—especially for NATO—in the wake of the Libya campaign, and instead should ask what, if anything, the costly commitment does for American security. NATO, I argue,

now constitutes a transfer payment from U.S. taxpayers (and their Chinese creditors) to bloated European welfare states. If the current Washington climate of austerity can serve any fruitful end, surely it should be to reconsider such foolish alliances.

NATO was created to counter the Soviet Union, but its broader purpose in Europe was summed up in an apocryphal quote attributed to Lord Ismay: to keep “the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” It helped accomplish those objectives, but not without significant costs. Today the benefits to American national security have disappeared, but the costs to taxpayers remain.

The Libya campaign exposed the alliance’s imbalance. Germany and other NATO members sat out the fight. The U.S. military provided most of the surveillance capabilities, largely via drones, that enabled NATO pilots to bomb Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s loyalists. European air forces ran out of precision-guided munitions and had to come begging for Uncle Sam to provide some. Thus, Washington essentially borrowed money from China to buy ordnance to give to Europe to drop on Libya. The post-Cold War NATO rationale is that we agree to spend and fight and the Europeans agree to support us - sometimes.

[…]

Instead of taking a victory lap when Col. Gadhafi falls, American policymakers should consider the fruits of NATO’s decades-long policy of infantilizing its allies. Now that America is broke, Europe is safe and the Soviet Union is gone, American policymakers ought to acknowledge that NATO in the 21st century constitutes a costly commitment with little benefit for Americans.

Whole thing here. And thanks to the Times and its illustrator John Camejo for providing the terrific illustration seen above.

U.S. Must Resist Military Role in Post-Qaddafi Libya

After weeks of very little movement either militarily or diplomatically in Libya, there are apparent developments on both fronts in recent days. Rebel forces, aided by NATO’s air support, finally appear to be advancing into western Libya and cutting off supply lines to Tripoli, the long-time stronghold of support for Muammar Qaddafi. And reports are swirling about secret negotiations that might provide a peaceful exit from the country for the aging dictator.

Those developments underscore that U.S. and NATO officials urgently need to consider what strategy they intend to pursue if Qaddafi’s more than four-decade hold on power finally comes to an end.  That is more crucial for the leaders of the European members of the alliance, since Libya is located on Europe’s Mediterranean flank, but because the Obama administration unwisely chose to involve the United States in Libya’s internecine conflict by launching air strikes, it has become a pertinent issue for Washington as well.

The outlook for a post-Qaddafi Libya is midpoint between sobering and depressing.  It is possible that the warring parties will accept a de facto division of the country between the eastern and western tribes, although a formal agreement to that effect is unlikely. Even an informal partition would more accurately reflect the demographics, politics, and history of that territory than an insistence on keeping Libya intact. Moreover, the most probable alternatives to a peaceful territorial division would be a continuous, simmering civil war or a rebel victory that would merely breed resentment in the western part of the country and pave the way for a new round of fighting a few years from now.

The NATO powers must confront the question of how much they are willing to assist the insurgents in maintaining control of western Libya once Qaddafi is gone. Prospects are not good that a government formed by the eastern-dominated rebel forces would be able to win even a modest number of influential converts from the western tribes. And if the problem of achieving and maintaining political control was not enough of a challenge for the insurgents and their NATO sponsors, there is the matter of repairing the infrastructure damaged in the fighting and replenishing the now largely empty Libyan treasury.

A new government in Tripoli cannot count on oil revenues in the short or medium term to remedy those problems. Experts estimate that it will be at least three years before oil production can return to pre-war levels.

Libya’s probable security and economic difficulties will create tremendous pressure on NATO to provide extensive financial aid and deploy peacekeeping forces. Therein lies the danger to the United States. Logically, if NATO does deploy ground forces, they should come overwhelmingly from France and some of the other countries bordering the Mediterranean. Those nations have the most at stake in trying to stabilize Libya. NATO members in central and northern Europe (with the exception of Britain) have shown little desire to engage in such a mission. So far, the Obama administration has indicated that the United States will not put ground forces into Libya —a wise exercise in restraint.

But given the financial woes of Italy, France and other key European members of the alliance, and given the habitual desire of the Europeans to off-load security problems onto the United States as NATO’s leader, it is all too likely that we will see a concerted campaign to get Washington’s participation in a post-Qaddafi peacekeeping mission. The Obama administration should firmly reject such overtures.  Washington’s agenda is already more than full with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the NATO nation-building missions in Bosnia and Kosovo provide ample evidence that a similar venture in Libya could prove extremely lengthy, expensive, and frustrating. President Obama should resist any temptation to involve the United States further in Libya’s domestic quarrels.

Cross-posted from the National Interest.