Libya? Really, Libya?

23 Mar

Surprise! We’re back to the Shock and Awe, knock-down-the-door, Tomahawk and JDAM war the US military in general, and Air Force and Navy in particular, like so much. Things are going swimmingly well in Libya because we’re still doing the parts we’re really good at. What comes next? If President Obama knows, he’s not saying, except that we won’t be in charge much longer (turns out the French never really were in charge after all, they just started the war first without talking to everyone). His War Powers Act clock is at 54 days and counting, but more on Obama’s failures in a moment.

Any public discussion of the fiasco in Libya seems to conform to a formula in three parts: two major – the question of whether to intervene, and the handling of the issue by the President – and one minor. Before I get to the major issues, let me dispense with the minor one.

The most insignificant portion of this issue is the hypocrisy watch all observers find themselves under, as the spectre of Iraq still looms, and our national politics are still played under broad Obama|Bush banners. For the record, I was for our action in Bosnia and Kosovo, because genocide was not a potential, but an ongoing horror. I was for intervention in conflicts we never stepped into, such as Rwanda. I was for the “little wars” of Clinton, in Iraq and Afghanistan in 1998, and wanted even more action because trouble seemed on the horizon and violence was escalating (embassy bombings, the USS Cole after, etc). I was for the invasion of Afghanistan at the time, because I was pissed, pro-Iraq War at the start, and pro-Surge as the best possible way to extricate ourselves from a bad situation. But now? A final analysis is complicated, as is inevitable when a war is personalized, and you find yourself invested in a very non-academic way. Lately, I find myself a recovering interventionist.

I say all of that as background to help you judge the following statement: what in God’s name are we doing in Libya? Have we gained no humility about the limits of US power, and learned nothing about picking sides in a tribal war, misunderstanding your enemy or allies, the limits of the capability of no-fly zones, and the grave responsibility of joining a war?

What are we doing in Libya? There is an ideological answer, and a realpolitik one. Both fail to pursuade, though (as is fundamental to its nature) the realpolitik answer is at least more pragmatic.

The ideologues, such as genocide expert and White House staffer Samantha Power, will tell you we must intervene in Libya because the international community can not stand by while a dictator murders his own people. While this sounds nice, it provides few practical specifics and is blatantly untrue. We stand by and watch dictators murder their own people all the time. In fact, we are currently doing so in Yemen, Bahrain, the Ivory Coast, Sudan, Burma, North Korea, Zimbabwe and the Congo, just to name the worst. In each of those cases, far more people have been murdered over far longer of a time. “The International Community” is in a tizzy over a city being without power for a week or two in Libya. In Zimbabwe and the Congo, the slaughter has gone on for decades. In addition, such mushy aims lead to the questions Americans are currently asking: are we trying to kill Qaddafi? Who are the rebels (as a commentator from STRATFOR put it, who knew 6 weeks ago there even was a Libyan opposition)? Are we on their side? What is a civilian? Can we kill civilians to protect civilians? What if the no-fly zone doesn’t stop the conflict? What are our goals? What are the conditions that will allow us to be done? If Obama knows, he’s not telling.

With the ideological answer either wanting or ineffectual, one is left with the realpolitik answer. Here, the water is murkier. Khadafi has been alternatingly an international pariah and our ally strongman. He perpetrated some of the worst terrorist attacks against Europeans and Americans in the 1980’s, but he also was held up as the model of the reformed autocrat in the 2000’s, unilaterally disavowing his nuke program, shrugging off UN sanctions in 2003, and making amends with the Brits, such that they controversially released a Lockerbie conspirator only two years ago. In short, he was a neutral party (and occasional ally against Al Qaeda) much more recently than he was persona non grata.

So why Libya now? Besides the need to secure oil for Western Europe, the unspoken realpolitik answer is Iran. Through the eyes of the international geopolitical chess-player, the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa go something like this. The January immolation and uprising in Tunisia was a genuine cry for help by the “Arab Street.” The events since, however, that were thus set in motion have been pre-planned coups and proxy battles that used the street protests as cover. Mubarak fell because the Egyptian military ousted him, payback for him wanting to install his non-military son in power instead of the next general in line, as the military regime has done for 60 years. Protests in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain are actually battles between Shia and Sunni, with Iran funding and provoking the protestors and Saudi Arabia coming to the aid of the Sunni regimes in power. The US does not condemn the actions in those countries, or establish a no-fly zone over Bahrain, because we are actually opposing Iran, and want the protests in those country’s crushed. Libya is thus another proxy, a convenient way of showing Iran that America can walk and chew gum at the same time, or bomb one country while stuck in a ground war with two others. It also lowers the bar for military intervention, and allows us to potentially act to protect our national interests (read: seize oil fields, violently open the Straits of Hormuz, allow Israel to bomb Iran’s nuke program) in a much more flagrant way.

Under this explanation, President Obama would rightly see Libya as a side-show. Perhaps that explains why he is treating it as such, aloof and seemingly uninvolved. Which brings us to the second major issue – Obama’s disappointment as Commander-in-Chief. Afghanistan is adrift – it has been months since we heard anything consequential on that decade long conflict. Now his eye is off the ball again. Whatever is going on inside his head on the topic of Libya, ideological, realpolitik or political, we do not know because he has not said. Little consultation with Congress other than a cattle round-up conference call. No evening address to the American people. It displays a lack of seriousness with the military task at hand – he has publically spoken about sending our forces into a new war as much as he would about the EPA making a regulatory rule change. 

To say nothing of the utter hypocrisy. Candidate Obama in 2007 said:

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent.

What made him change his mind in this case? In fact, what made him change his mind in the last ten days? Two weeks ago mainstream liberals were lampooning “neocons” for trying to drag us into another war, and the prospect of intervention in Libya was laughable. At the end of February his Defense Secretary said he should have his head examined to get into another conflict in the Middle East, and later, on the topic of Libya, said a no-fly zone meant open war (implying it should be avoided, or at least not taken lightly). In a matter of days, Obama had, as David Gergen said today, a “head snapping reversal of policy.”

Bush was criticized for changing his mind about why we invaded Iraq (WMDs to Democracy) after the conflict began. I suppose one way to avoid that charge is to have no position at all. Going to the UN Security Council does not mean he is slow, indecisive or wussy to let the Europeans lead (though, like we said, they aren’t really leading, and now France and Italy are now bickering about who is doing what). Rather, Obama’s issue with going to the UN is that he used it as a substitute for planning or forming a policy. The UN confers precious little legitimacy anyway – a Security Council resolution simply means Russia and China do not have sufficient economic or political interests to interfere if the West wishes to additionally bankrupt itself on another expensive excursion. In this case, a veneer of legality is being substituted for substance.

When Obama returns from South America, we will probably have a policy speech explaining our goals in Libya . . . justification for the bombing after it began. In the meantime, The Daily Show describes the mess well:


10 Responses to “Libya? Really, Libya?”

  1. Colin March 23, 2011 at 9:21 am #

    But, but . . . he won the Nobel Peace Prize!

    “For the record, I was for our action in Bosnia and Kosovo, because genocide was not a potential, but an ongoing horror. I was for intervention in conflicts we never stepped into, such as Rwanda. I was for the “little wars” of Clinton, in Iraq and Afghanistan in 1998, and wanted even more action because trouble seemed on the horizon and violence was escalating (embassy bombings, the USS Cole after, etc). I was for the invasion of Afghanistan at the time, because I was pissed, pro-Iraq War at the start, and pro-Surge as the best possible way to extricate ourselves from a bad situation.”

    Christ, look at that list. By my count, we’re looking at 7 military interventions during Rebecca Black’s lifetime.

  2. Leo Wilson March 23, 2011 at 9:53 am #

    This and other recent stories about Gitmo and military tribunals remind me of a joke about a kid who moved out of his parents home as soon as he legally could because his parents were so clueless, then moved back in a year later, amazed at how much his parents had learned in such a short time…

    BH is growing up, and is amazed by how much his predecessors have learned since he took office.
    Flawed as it may be, American diplomacy and military power is still the best answer to some problems. At the end of this (or somewhere along the way), he may actually admire how much the generals have learned, too.

  3. Bruce Beyer, member of the WNY Peace Center March 23, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    Brian, you’re going down a slippery slope here–“a recovering interventionist”? Setting aside the moral, political, and ethical issues–I just don’t see how our country can afford this “strategy”. And one other thing, I’m really sick and tired of all the chickenhawks and side line cheerleaders extorting young people to fight while they enjoy their suburban lifestyle. It seems to me that if you are going to advocate for intervention, you should , at least, back up your words with service. The VA has beds full of soldiers with TBI and they don’t expect those numbers to peak until 2040. I’ve sat with former soldiers who suffer PTSD issues beyond anything I’ve experienced with Vietnam vets. Thank you for your thoughtful essay. A little more work and you’re going to start sounding like one of my heros, General Smedley Butler. War is a racket!

  4. Mike In WNY March 23, 2011 at 10:30 am #

    Eisenhower warned us about the military industrial complex. Apparently, his successors have been bought and paid for.

    In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

  5. Leo Wilson March 23, 2011 at 11:00 am #

    @Mike – that’s the truth. The “culture of corruption” that permeates our political sector too decades to become institutionalzed. My take is that it has alot to do with who controlled congress for 50 consecutive years after WW2, but I haven’t really noticed any correction for it since that party stopped having sole ownership. Note that the guy who first complained about this was a Republican.

  6. Brian Wood March 23, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    Those poor Libyans, unable to figure out how they want their nation to proceed.  Aside from the utter stupidity of nationalism, the habit of the U.S. to define others’ nationalism seems perfect for arousing the ire (well deserved) of those who hate the U.S. (a country all good americans detest and are ashamed of).

  7. Brian Castner March 23, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    If Bruce, Colin, Mike and I are generally on the same side here, then this issue is producing some very strange bedfellows. Which begs the questions, who DOES think this is a good idea, besides a majority of elected politicians?

  8. Leo Wilson March 23, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

    @Brian – I’m on the fence re: intervention, but… I see the democratic movement as critical to future interaction with Muslim countries because past acts of terror against civilians and non-combatants have been justified because we (the west) have elected, representative governments. They interpret this to mean that we are responsibile for our government’s actions, while they, under dictatorships, are not responsibility for the actions of their own.

    These people aren’t just standing up for freedom, they are taking responsibility for what is done by their governments, who will represent their will. They become legitimate targets in their own estimation.

    I don’t really agree with that line of logic… I don’t see BH’s actions as being my responsibility… but it levels the field by their reasoning.

  9. RaChaCha March 23, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

    I support this limited action in Libya, and I think it will result in the long-overdue departure of however-you-spell-his-name. As for why: I think it’s the right thing, at the right time, with the right set of circumstances. I’m not sure it’s possible to establish an overarching policy providing a formula for when and whether intervention — and what kind — happens or not. Grand Unified Theories evade even Einsteins. Sometimes timing and circumstances — hopefully enhanced by leadership — intersect and allows for doing what seems to be the right thing as best we can determine. Lots of ifs, ands, and buts — I think Secretary Clinton is doing a good job juggling them.

    Thank you for your military service, Brian — it gives you a perspective on these matters I especially appreciate.

  10. Gabe March 31, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    A little late here but….Brian, you’re analysis is dead-on. As a fellow STRATFOR reader, it’s refreshing to understand this whole thing in a wider geopolitical context. All this chaos in the Middle East is really a big game of chicken between the West and Iran, and on a larger scale and much more subtle manner, part of a greater economic showdown between the West and large independents like China and Russia.

    The sudden intervention in Lybia should be renamed “Operation: Get oil flowing again for the Brits and French.” Ever since WWII, the American taxpayer has been subsidizing the security of Western Europe and our other major allies. This operation is a mere continuation of that trend. We’re broke, it’s about time we let them defend themselves and secure their own interests.

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