“Victory” in Libya: No Model for U.S. Foreign Policy

August 31, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared on The Huffington Post on August 31, 2011.

It took the greatest military alliance in history five months to push the Libyan rebels across the finish line. Nevertheless, Western politicians are claiming victory.

Yet the ultimate consequences of allied intervention remain uncertain. While few mourn the demise of “the Colonel,” liberal democracy may not result in Libya.

Libya was yet another unnecessary war of choice. America would have been more secure had U.S. forces stayed home.

When President Barack Obama intervened in Libya’s civil war he could point to no discernible American security interest. Moammar Gaddafi was an unpleasant dictator, but until March he had been feted by the West for abandoning his nuclear program and combating Islamic extremism. Indeed, Gaddafi became a poster child for cooperation with Washington.

Unfortunately, ousting his regime has made proliferation more likely. Abundant Libyan chemical weapons and anti‐​aircraft missiles may leak abroad. Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch warned: “weapon proliferation out of Libya is potentially one of the largest we have every documented — 2003 Iraq pales in comparison — and so the risks are equally much more significant.”

Moreover, U.S. and NATO intervention will encourage unpopular regimes to develop and keep WMDs. While the West’s attack did not result from Tripoli’s disarmament, the campaign was possible only because of Tripoli’s disarmament. What other pariah regime, including Iran and North Korea, is going to agree to peaceful denuclearization when the allies might later decide to initiate regime change?

The war also may energize regional terrorist networks. Islamic militants have been freed from Libyan jails. A number of the rebels fought with al‐​Qaeda in Iraq or battled U.S. forces in Afghanistan; some radicals, including a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, hold leadership positions in the TNC military. Their ambitions remain unclear, but National Defense University’s Walid Phares worried that “The Islamist militias within the rebels are the most organized, widest network.”

The Western program also made future United Nations backing less likely even for a war of necessity. The U.S. and Europeans won Chinese and Russian acquiescence to a UN resolution authorizing military action for the limited purpose of protecting Libyan civilians. However, the allies ostentatiously turned the operation into a campaign to oust the Gaddafi government.

Moscow complained about NATO’s overreach and Beijing was not happy losing a friendly oil producer. Neither may be so willing to allow Washington and Europe to borrow UN legitimacy in the future. As the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. The lack of formal international sanction would discourage European states from backing America or acting themselves.

Worse, turning Libya’s internal blood‐​letting into a NATO conflict further transformed the alliance into a transmission belt of unnecessary war. NATO was created to promote a shared interest: European security. War with the Soviet Union would have been horrific, but the allies believed their survival to be a vital interest worth fighting for.

That shared commitment has dissipated. Since NATO members no longer face any common threat of consequence, they use the alliance to drag their partners into narrower conflicts of limited interest to others. Washington drew reluctant European members into Afghanistan and Iraq. Britain and France pulled the U.S. and other European nations into Libya. Even so, only nine of 28 NATO members provided air‐​to‐​ground support in the latter. Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute observed: “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that NATO emerges from this successful operation weaker than it went into it.”

The war’s backers proclaimed the military mission to be humanitarian, even an outgrowth of the UN’s proclaimed “responsibility to protect.” Alas, these claims were fraudulent, the humanitarian equivalent George W. Bush’s missing WMDs in Iraq. The Libyan conflict had been raging for a month before the U.S. and NATO intervened, and Gaddafi had slaughtered no civilians in any of the cities he had retaken from the rebels. He was a thug, yes, but did not appear to be bent on mass murder. His incendiary rhetoric — routinely ignored for 42 years — was directed against armed insurgents, not noncombatants.

Of course, Gaddafi could have engaged in an orgy of killing had he emerged victorious. But so could any dictator anywhere. Like in Syria, where the U.S. and Europeans have done little.

In any case, by adopting a minimalist military policy, Washington and NATO prolonged the conflict, resulting in far more deaths. Low‐​tech civil wars usually are bloody: outside estimates run from 10,000 to 30,000 dead in Libya, while the TNC figures 50,000 deaths over the six month rebellion. Yet the Western powers refused to use the force necessary for a quick victory. Five months of costly fighting ensued. If one goes to war to save lives, one should not do so in a manner that maximizes casualties.

In fact London and Paris certainly, and Washington probably, always were bent on regime change. They just wanted a humanitarian gloss for the operation. Unfortunately, claiming atrocities when none exist risks crying wolf, like the faked claims against Wilhelmine Germany, widely discredited after World War I, which led to skepticism of reports of Nazi crimes, including the Holocaust.

Moreover, the allies ended up responsible for the actions of the opposition. On more than one occasion NATO felt the need to threaten to bomb the rebels if they mistreated civilians. Vigilante justice was common as the anti‐​Gaddafi forces advanced. After seizing Tripoli the victors arrested many opponents and murdered more than a few prisoners.

Hopefully such brutality will end along with the fighting, but the U.S. and NATO are stuck with the allies they have, not the ones they wish they had. After all, U.S. diplomats called the Kosovo Liberation Army “terrorists” even before the U.S. lent its air force to the KLA, and after the war ethnic Albanians engaged in widespread ethnic cleansing of Serbs, Roma, and others. At least some of those currently in power in Pristina likely are war criminals and gangsters. Heck ‘uva job, Bill Clinton!

Having changed the regime, what have the allies wrought? Gaddafi’s demise is welcome, but a liberal, democratic future for the North African nation remains a distant hope. Precedent suggests caution. The fall of Baghdad generated similar rapturous but sadly temporary applause. In Cairo an intolerant anonymous authoritarian state appears to be rising.

The problem is not that there are no good people in the Transitional National Council. The problem is that there are not only good people in the TNC (which, moreover, does not control all anti‐​government forces).

Victory has transformed the TNC’s principal task. So far, noted the New Yorker’s Andrew Solomon, the group “has tended to describe itself in whatever terms will most effectively secure it NATO’s continued allegiance.” Now the TNC must govern. And a bitter post‐​war political and possibly military struggle for control is likely.

Libya is a large, artificial nation with about 140 tribes and a multitude of regional, social, ethnic, and religious divisions. There is no democratic heritage upon which to draw. Gaddafi established a unique form of personal rule that left few institutions — civic, political, or government.

The anti‐​Gaddafi coalition includes defectors from the regime, liberals dedicated to building a democratic society, members of long mistreated eastern tribes, western Berbers, and violent jihadists who fought the U.S. No surprise, wrote Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, the TNC is “already facing significant and sometimes lethal division within its ranks.”

The unsolved murder of Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes, formerly the top rebel commander, could be a harbinger of bloodier times to come. Reported the New York Times: “A week after rebels broke into Col. Moammar Gaddafi’s former stronghold, much of its territory remains divided into fiefs, each controlled by quasi‐​independent brigades representing different geographic areas of the country. And the spray paint they use to mark their territory tells the story of a looming leadership crisis in the capital, Tripoli.”

Indeed, history records plenty of examples when diverse coalitions ousted dictators and bad guys with guns triumphed over good guys with principles. France, Russia, Iran, and Nicaragua are some notable examples. Egypt may be trending in that direction.

The West is particularly concerned about Islamic influence. One draft constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and Sharia as “the principal source of legislation.” The Libyan people obviously can choose a religious government if they desire, but similar systems elsewhere have not created hospitable environments for minority faiths or individual liberty.

Anne‐​Marie Slaughter, formerly at the Obama State Department, dismissively asked whether anything would be “worse than Col. Gaddafi staying on by increasingly brutal means for many more years.” That question first should be put to the tens of thousands killed during the war. Then one should remember those who died at the hands of French, Russian, Chinese revolutionaries, Iranian, and Nicaraguan revolutionaries, all of whom overthrew authoritarian systems. Having helped break Libya, America now owns the outcome, whatever it may be.

Still, even an undemocratic non‐​Gaddafi government might be an improvement, but that doesn’t mean it would have been worth America fighting a war. The standard for U.S. military intervention surely is not believing that whatever follows intervention is likely to be less bad. If so, Washington should be readying military campaigns against North Korea, Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, Syria, and all of the Central Asian “stans.” After all, how could anything be worse than their existing regimes?

Nor is the West guaranteed to get its way in Tripoli, even after having backed the TNC. For instance, the rebels refuse to consider extraditing Abdel Basset Ali al‐​Megrahi, who planned the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103. “We do not hand over Libyan citizens,” said the TNC justice minister Mohammed al‐​Alagi. Similarly, Baghdad has set its own policy, backing Iran against Saudi Arabia in Bahrain, for instance.

However, the most important impact of the war is on domestic American institutions. The marginal cost of the military campaign was “only” about $1.2 billion, a rounding error for a government with more than $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities. But costs will escalate if the administration heeds the advice of analysts like Richard Haass and Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, who suggest the necessity of a Western occupation force in the third Muslim nation in a decade. There also have been mutterings about the need to ensure order coming out of London, which helped drag America into the war in the first place.

Washington’s proclivity to engage in needless wars of choice requires maintenance of an oversize military establishment and a military budget roughly equal to that of the rest of the world combined. It’s not just Libya. It’s Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan (counter‐​insurgency) and Iraq (again). So long as Washington insists on micro‐​managing events around the globe and engaging in international social engineering, irrespective of American interests and capabilities, Washington is going to have to spend money which it does not have on weapons and aid.

The conflict also reinforced presidential lawlessness. Past presidents have routinely lied the U.S. into war and abused their authority afterwards. Candidate Obama promised to be different, telling the American people “No more ignoring the law when it’s inconvenient.”

However, the president’s claim that Libya was a humanitarian venture was no more believable than George W. Bush’s assertion that Iraq had WMDs. Perhaps not technically a lie — in both cases the men may have believed what they said, despite abundant evidence to the contrary — but less than credible. Indeed, President Obama has shown future chief executives the way to war, claim to save lives while pursuing other objectives.

Worse was President Obama’s violation of the Constitution and War Powers Resolution. The former mandates a congressional declaration of war; the second requires legislative assent for any military action after 60 days. Even President George W. Bush won congressional authorization for his two wars.

But President Obama made the ludicrous claim that Libya didn’t count because it really wasn’t hostilities — even as U.S. planes, missiles, and drones were killing Libyan military personnel and destroying Libyan military materiel. Top members of his own legal team objected to his refusal to follow the law. President Obama thus added another precedent to a long history of executive lawlessness.

The world is better off with Moammar Gaddafi’s ouster. But that welcome result does not justify Barack Obama deceiving the public and violating the Constitution. Even if events in post‐​Gaddafi Libya turn out surprisingly well, the cost to American liberties will have been too high.

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