Candidate Barack Obama ran for president on a platform of change. Many policies deserved reform, none more than President George W. Bush’s propensity to initiate unnecessary wars of choice. Iraq was a debacle from the start; the shift from counter‐terrorism to counter‐insurgency in Afghanistan turned that conflict into a second disaster.
Since taking office President Obama has left U.S. troops in Iraq and expanded the war in Afghanistan. Now he has taken America into its third war in a Muslim nation within a decade — to promote “global peace and security,” he claimed, the usual justification used by presidents to enter conflicts which serve neither. President Obama obviously has found his inner Neocon and joined Washington’s RepubliCrat Party.
The president received much criticism for taking so long to decide to enter the Libyan civil war. But war is a momentous decision which deserves more consideration than the length of time it takes for one of Washington’s many think tank warriors to dash off a pro‐war op‐ed. As expected, the potential whiff of gunpowder in the air brought out the famed Sofa Samurai who pushed America into the two other wars in which the U.S. is still entangled. President Obama was right to take longer to decide.
Now he deserves criticism — for deciding wrongly.
What is the U.S. doing in Libya? It is hard to imagine, given the dearth of American interests in that nation.
The administration’s purported humanitarian concerns are charming, but curious. The Western powers knew Muammar Gaddafi was a nasty dictator a couple months ago when they were feting him for having reformed and joined the international community. Humanitarianism didn’t matter much so long as the Crazy Colonel was serving allied interests.
When the popular uprising failed to quickly eject him, an extended fight became likely. Such conflicts are never pretty, as America well knows, having lost more than 600,000 people in its own Civil War. Nor has Washington worried much when its allies did whatever was necessary to resist challenges to their authority. For instance, the U.S. didn’t object to the Turkish military using U.S.-made weapons to brutally crush the long‐running Kurdish insurgency. Nearly 40,000 people died in that conflict, but demands to “stop the violence” never passed the lips of American policymakers.
Now Washington is standing by as the authoritarian Bahrain monarchy, backed by the totalitarian theocracy in Saudi Arabia next door, kills demonstrators and arrests opposition leaders. An embarrassed Obama administration has expressed its aversion to violence and desire for negotiation. But there have been no press conferences by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposing to pull the U.S. Navy out of its base in Manama and advance a Bahraini no fly zone resolution at the United Nations. Human rights and democracy? Well, we obviously shouldn’t go overboard.
What happens if troops sent in by the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates shoot down Shiite demonstrators in Bahrain? Will the Obama administration do anything more than clear its collective throat?
Even more dubious is the claim that Washington must intervene since the Libyan conflict is destabilizing the region. The Libyan uprising was triggered by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, not vice versa. Africa has suffered far worse conflicts for decades without affecting America or Europe. Continued U.S. support for Israel despite the latter’s authoritarian rule over millions of Palestinians weighs far more heavily on the Arab Street than whether America is willing to push Gaddafi out of power. And Bahrain is today’s most dangerous regional spark, with the potential of triggering a Gulf‐wide conflict between Shia and Sunni.
Anyway, getting involved in someone else’s civil war is a curious way to promote stability. A simple no fly zone, especially at this stage, wouldn’t likely alter the balance of power on the ground. Hence the more expansive resolution and French action against Libyan ground forces. But this means the allies are taking sides in a civil war, not protecting civilians. The ultimate objective is to take Tripoli, not safeguard Benghazi.
Gaddafi is not likely to retreat, let alone surrender, however. Unless the allies are prepared to accept a stalemate they likely will have to escalate. After all, they can ill afford to demand Gaddafi’s departure and deploy military force, and then fail to achieve their objective. What if air strikes aren’t enough? The UN resolution authorizes “all necessary force excluding a foreign occupation force.” Does that mean ground support so long as it is not intended to occupy?
In his address to the nation the president said he did not intend to send in troops, but what if doing so is the only way to end the conflict to America’s satisfaction? What if the British and French say they are going in, with or without Washington’s support? Outside governments would end up taking over the opposition in Libya’s civil war.
What happens if Gaddafi is defeated? The winners may not be as ready to forgive and forget as Washington seems to assume: witness the mass ethnic cleansing committed by ethnic‐Albanians after NATO ousted Serbian forces from Kosovo. Sporadic violence has continued against the minority Serbian population over the years. Today the U.S. is tied to a government headed by onetime guerrillas linked to regional crime networks and charged with harvesting organs for profit from Serb prisoners.
Who would triumph in a revolutionary Libya? Most American policymakers know nothing about the intricacies of the societies which they invade and occupy — look at Afghanistan and Iraq. Libya is divided by tribe and region; the opposition ranges from Western‐style liberals to terrorist‐minded jihadists to onetime pro‐Gaddafi opportunists. The endgame is not likely to be simple. Having ousted Gaddafi, the U.S. and Europeans could not let just anyone succeed him. Which likely means years of meddling in the politics of a fragile new client state.
No more plausible is the claim that having angered Gaddafi by ineffectively backing his ouster, the allies should not risk leaving him in power, lest he return to his old anti‐Western practices. It’s a shameless bootstrap argument: our approach to Libya has been entirely unnecessary, ineffectual, and counterproductive, so now we must go to war. No one making this argument should be entrusted with running American foreign policy.
Anyway, the fact that Gaddafi previously abandoned both terrorism and nuclear developments demonstrates that he responds to outside incentives. He wants to regain control of Libya. However much he may desire revenge against the West, that objective likely would be only secondary. The threat of allied military retaliation would likely keep him in check. Iraq demonstrates the practical case against preventive war: Far better to attack another nation only if it actually becomes necessary than because someone thinks there is a vague chance that some day war might possibly become necessary.
Perhaps the most foolish case for American military action is that Washington has to go to war to make friends in Libya and the Arab world. The opposition in Libya understandably wants support, but so would most any other guerrilla force around the world. For instance, the Kurds probably would have welcomed an offer of American airstrikes on Turkish military installations. Wanting people on one side of a conflict to like you is a bizarre justification for raining down death and destruction on other people, who aren’t going to like you very much.
Will killing Arabs to help Arabs improve America’s image among other Arabs? The answer is not clear. Although the Arab League endorsed a no fly zone, opinion throughout the Middle East appears split. Even many Arabs who favor action against Gaddafi believe Turkey should have taken the lead. Yet the United States again plans on determining the destiny of a Muslim and Arab nation.
Moreover, positive opinion today could quickly swing negative. The operation could go bad: Launching errant and deadly air strikes, arbitrarily picking winners and losers within the opposition, imposing policies on a new government, triggering a second civil war after Gaddafi is deposed. Given grievous allied blundering in Afghanistan and Iraq, there’s no reason to believe that the West will do significantly better in Libya.
As the Kennedy School’s Graham Allison argued, American acquiescence in the UN resolution could have been beneficial if Washington had left the campaign to the Europeans. Let them finally take on international security responsibilities commensurate with their interests and wealth. However, that isn’t proving to be the case. The U.S. already has launched numerous Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against Libyan air defense installations. If the Europeans falter in their anti‐Gaddafi campaign, they are likely to call on America for additional help.
Perhaps most curious are the legislators who paraded about Capitol Hill demanding action. Where is their declaration of war? The Constitution puts the decision for war in the hands of Congress, not the United Nations. Yet again American legislators have avoided political responsibility for sending young Americans into combat. If the conflict misfires, they will parade about Capitol Hill criticizing the administration.
Nevertheless, the chief blame for this unnecessary war falls on the president. He abandoned his responsibilities to the American people for yet another foolish international crusade. The long‐term costs are uncertain but likely to far exceed the benefits.
Candidate Obama never claimed to be a dove. Rather, he allowed peace‐minded voters to assume he was on their side because of his prescient opposition to the Iraq war. It turns out that may be the only significant, substantive foreign policy difference between him and his predecessor. President Obama apparently is a liberal hawk. He may be a little less enthused about going to war than is the Neoconservative Greek Chorus that cheers every conflict everywhere, but in practice he is no less willing to use the military.
Libya is not America’s war. It is justified neither on security or humanitarian grounds. Nor can Washington, overwhelmed with current deficits and future liabilities, afford to be world’s permanent 911 number. Americans should not be expected to pick up every bill and fight every war around the globe.
We need change, real change. We need a president who doesn’t believe his legacy requires him to launch his own war, killing foreigners and risking American lives in return, irrespective of American interests. Now the change that might most promote peace is the defeat of Barack Obama in 2012.