FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Ten Reflections On Libya
Theory Gives Way To Practice
I had intended to write up a longer or at any rate more organized essay about Libya, but for now, here are my two cents:
1. I was open initially, at least in theory, to the U.S. arming the rebels and enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, on the theory that we could tip the balance in favor of the rebels without the need to commit ground troops. I don’t buy the theory that the U.S. has no stake in overthrowing Ghadafi* as a matter of national interest, as doing so may advance our broader strategic goal of changing the political structure of the Arab/Muslim world so as to break the status quo in which the only alternatives are (a) terror-sponsoring tyrannies and (b) tyrannies whose only credible opponents are Islamist terrorists. Probably the most glaring omission from the Administration’s arguments in favor of this action is any sense that this is part of a coherent regional or other strategy – nor could it be, given the Administration’s passivity in Egypt and its unwillingness to do anything to support opponents of the much more dangerous and hostile Iranian and Syrian regimes.
I don’t regard regime change in Libya as a sufficiently compelling interest that I’d want to commit ground troops to such a project – nobody has argued that the U.S. had cause or interest in starting a war with Khadaffy, as opposed to joining one in progress – but you don’t commit air assets unless you are willing to contemplate either ground forces to support them or just losing any pilots who get shot down.
2. I’m completely opposed to committing U.S. forces (air, ground, whatever) unless our goal is to destroy Quaddafi’s regime and we are committed to see that through to the end. Bad as Kadafy is, he’s been much more contained in recent years than Saddam ever was – among other things, surrendering his WMD programs to outside inspectors after seeing what George W. Bush did to Saddam – but if left in power after this, he will have much the same desire to make trouble for us that Saddam did after the first Gulf War. And more broadly, as I have explained before, the one indispensable prerequisite for using military force is defining who the enemy is and committing to defeat him. Doing less than that is worse than pointless. Unfortunately, Obama has been (depending how you interpret his oracular pronouncements) vague and/or contradictory on whether we are truly committed to eliminating Gaddafhi’s regime.
3. My openness to a no-fly zone in Libya decreased dramatically when we sat by and did nothing for over two critical weeks while all the rebel-held cities other than Benghazi fell back into the regime’s hands. Now, our arrival may be too little too late. Not only does toppling the regime without a major Allied military commitment look like a longer shot now, but specifically we gave the regime the time to move military assets into those cities. Air power is never more effective than against armored columns traveling in the open desert (Libya isn’t the mountains of Bosnia or the Ho Chi Minh Trail), but the regime is much more entrenched now in those urban positions. Things can change quickly in an unstable situation, but unlike in Afghanistan and Iraq there’s at least a significant chance right now that the regime we’ve bombed will still be standing a year from now, and what then?
In war, a questionable decision made swiftly is often better than a good one made too late. At least Sarah Palin, who supported a no-fly zone weeks before Obama, understood this. If anything, Obama’s reliance on the humanitarian argument (Benghazi will be flattened) suggests that he was more inclined to back the rebels as their chances of victory diminished. I am left with the creeping suspicion that Obama isn’t anti-war so much as he’s uncomfortable with American victory.
4. We also went into this with the average citizen having no clue what kind of people the rebels are, and apparently with U.S. policymakers not knowing a whole lot more. It increasingly appears they may be linked with Al Qaeda and participating in more than the usual atrocities attendant to civil wars in the Arab/Muslim world. Ghadaffy may be a bad guy, but he’s the devil we know, and the prospects for replacing him with something worse look even more problematic than they did in Egypt.
5. I’m fine with us working within NATO, but let’s not pretend that that means any less U.S. commitment. Or that Obama’s coalition is somehow superior to the multinational force in Iraq, which involved many more nations putting boots on the ground. As for going to Congress, there’s interesting Constitutional debate around what powers the President has to act militarily without Congressional approval (almost nobody disputes that he has some) and what power Congress has to restrict his existing Article II powers by statute, but if the Iraq experience convinced me of anything, it’s that Bush – and the mission – would have been in much worse shape in terms of popular support if he hadn’t gone to Congress in advance.
6. I’m not opposed to considering humanitarian concerns – or access to oil, for that matter – as a reason to go to war (they were one of numerous reasons for the Iraq War), but I’m very uncomfortable with using it as the sole justification for a war, especially when we self-evidently are not applying the same standard across the globe. Principles are important, but in the real world you can rarely afford to enforce them consistently; wars are ultimately a matter of national interest, and you can’t turn a principle into an interest just by calling it one. Nobody can possibly take seriously the idea that we are being entirely consistent here (we’ve watched many worse things unfold in sub-Saharan Africa).
7. This whole thing is going to cost a bunch of money. I generally pay little attention to financial cost in decisions about war and peace, on the grounds that if something is worth losing lives over, it’s necessarily going to be worth spending money on as well. But if the calculus here is that knocking out the regime can be done on the cheap, it becomes more relevant to consider the dollars as well.
8. Yes: given that bombing Libya is a close call and depends on a lot of pragmatic factors, it does matter that I don’t have any faith in the current Administration to carry out the fundamentals – i.e., defining the enemy and the objective – competently or in the best interests of the U.S.
9. Polls are showing at most 50% public support for this mission. That can’t be good news for Obama if this doesn’t wrap up quickly; the Iraq War and Vietnam both began with 80% public support (I’ve been reading Steven Hayward’s Age of Reagan, and he cites among other things a May 1967 Gallup poll that found only 14% support for withdrawing from Vietnam, compared to 25% support for nuking North Vietnam). If the mission goes badly, Obama will be left with nearly no support.
10. At least having a Democratic president means that we don’t have to listen to idiots arguing that the use of military force is illegitimate because neither the President, the Vice President nor the Secretary of State served in the military. That argument was never the province of remotely serious people anyway, let alone anyone who would use it consistently across partisan lines.
* – Given the absence of an agreed-upon transliteration of his name, I refuse to spell it the same way twice in a row.