Put me down in the camp that has been extremely skeptical of the John McCain-Joe Lieberman-neocon zeal to get the U.S. involved militarily in Libya. I was from the start, foresquare against the invasion and occupation of Iraq and to my mind, any idea Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol support is more than likely a bad one (ditto McCain and Lieberman.) But that was when the “war first” crowd was talking about a U.S.-enforced, unilateral no fly zone. A no fly zone is war, no matter what a neocon tries to tell you.
Still, now that this is a U.N. war operation, we’re in a rather different kind of war.
First off, let’s start with where we are not. Liberal protestations aside, this is not akin to the situation before the Iraq invasion in 2003. Then, the Bush administration ginned up a phony case for a policy they apparently arrived in Washington ready to implement – they just needed a cause. 9/11 provided the pretext, and in we went. Even the worst horror stories about the Saddam Hussein regime – including the babies being left to die in their incubators – turned out to be lies (though make no mistake, Hussein and his kids were a nasty bunch.) And we all now know about the myriad untruths scooped up from Curveball, and served up to Collin Powell on a silver platter.
This is not that.
The deadly attacks on Libyans by Qaddafi’s forces and his mercenaries aren’t some story being fed to us by a CIA-funded exile group. They’re playing out live on Twitter, Facebook and on satellite television and Youtube every day. Qaddafi is not, as Hussein did, protesting his innocence. He and his progeny are threatening to go “house to house“ looking for opposition members, and showing “no mercy” in drowning Benghazi and other cities in ”rivers of blood.” The threat to the Libyan people is immediate, not long festering, as it was in 2003 Iraq.
This is more like Bosnia (where NATO put up a no fly zone but did little else to stop the ensuing genocide) or Rwanda – where again, the international community did too little, too late. Or Sudan, where the world did nothing at all. It’s not Iraq, where Saddam Hussein hadn’t committed any new acts of internal or external aggression that could justify a war. This is a chance for the international community to actually behave in the way the U.N. was designed to (and what Susan Rice seems to have been advocating it do in Africa for some time.)
Also unlike Iraq 2.0 (and more like the first Gulf War) – this action is being undertaken not by the U.S., but by the international community (in the case of Iraq 1.0, the world acted to protect the flow of oil coming out of Kuwait – a cynical read says things are not much different here, especially on the part of the Europeans. In my opinion, Iraq 2.0 was more complicated than just oil, and based on a truly bizarre neocon game plan for the Mideast.)
Liberals say they believe in the United Nations process. Well, this is that process. Even with the abstensions of Germany, Russia and China, the security council essentially acted unanimously, to authorize all necessary force to push Qaddafi back, triggering very concrete obligations on the part of the U.S., as detailed here.
The U.S. is not invading Libya. The U.S. is acting on its obligations to the U.N. This is not George W. Bush pretending to have an international mandate to enforce a U.N. resolution aainst Iraq. It is President Barack Obama carrying out the plain writ of a U.N. resolution against Muommar Qaddafi’s government. The Wall Street Journal, no friends of the president, they, lays out the “Obama doctrine” at work here. And it’s one that is not new for Mr. Obama:
From the start of White House deliberations about how to respond to the crisis in Libya, President Barack Obama set two clear parameters for his top advisers: he didn’t want to use military force if the U.S. had to be in the lead and he had no intention of sending American ground troops.
With Saturday’s start of airstrikes against Libyan leader Col. Moammar Ghadafi, Mr. Obama appears to be putting into practice a foreign-policy doctrine he first sketched during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Facing off against then-fellow Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in a debate for the Democratic primary, Mr. Obama said he didn’t want to just end the war in Iraq. “I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place,” he said.
In contrast to his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who invaded Iraq in 2003 despite opposition from many allies and Democrats, Mr. Obama is taking pains to receive unambiguous legal authority through the United Nations, getting clear support from Arab states and then letting others—France and Britain —lead the military charge.
The approach risks opening Mr. Obama to criticism from the right, in particular, but also from the brand of liberal internationalism that animates some of his advisers. Potential Republican presidential candidates for 2012 have criticized the president in recent days for appearing tentative and not pushing America’s traditional role of international peacekeeper.
It also isn’t clear that the U.S. will be able to hold back and let the international coalition take charge if the effort falters.
In a three-minute statement to the media on Saturday after the first cruise missiles were launched, Mr. Obama six times noted international support for the use of force, saying the attack on Libya was an “international effort” and that the U.S. was acting with a “broad coalition” that included European and Arab partners. Mr. Obama and his aides also said he and top advisers had consulted with bipartisan leaders in Congress.
“Make no mistake: Today we are part of a broad coalition,” Mr. Obama told reporters traveling with him in Brazil, where Mr. Obama was beginning a five-day previously scheduled swing through Latin America. He spent most of Saturday talking with Brazilian officials and executives about trade and other matters.
Mr. Obama appeared content Saturday to be seen as following French President Sarkozy, who issued the first order of the day to strike at Col. Gadhafi’s forces and protect the rebel capital of Benghazi.
In 2003, then-French President Jacques Chirac opposed Mr. Bush’s drive to war in Iraq, as did Mr. Obama, who at the time was a state senator from Illinois just beginning a long-shot U.S. Senate campaign.
The cruise-missile strikes ordered by Mr. Obama against Col. Gadhafi’s air defenses Saturday were the first major show of American force in the military campaign. “We’re the only nation with the capacity to fire that many,” a military official said, explaining why the U.S. was taking the lead for now.
There are also other issues at stake, including the potential to destabilize or even help reverse the democratic revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, both of which remain entirely unstable. Allowing Qaddafi to remain in place in Libya, and to continue his aggression against his own population will have wider, graver implications for the region.
Of course, the risk inherent in any military operation is the danger that it will escalate, whatever the initial intentions; that “mission creep” will set in, and next thing you know, we’re playing a Rwanda style cat and mouse game with “mad dog” Muammar. And yes, there is hypocrisy in the U.S. not applying the same standard to Yemen and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia – our allies in the Persian Gulf, and in the U.S. not encouraging similar armed uprisings in Syria or Iran. But foreign policy is complicated and often morally murky. It’s never neat and never cut and dried. You can’t apply the “if we don’t do it here, we shouldn’t do it anywhere” absolutism of the liberal ideal to real global politics and live in the real world. It makes great online theater, but it rarely works in practice. And indeed, if Qaddafi is allowed to get away with murder – literally – it stands to reason that it would only embolden those other regimes, and teach them that using deadly force against their own populations is a way to win, as opposed to taking the route of the dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, by stepping down.
That won’t move people like Michael Moore or Glenn Greenwald, but then, little that this administration could do would – short of literally abdicating the White House to Dennis Kucinich.
(BTW, I believe there are good reasons for liberal reticence on Libya. But the knee-jerk, anti-Obama strain on the left isn’t interested in having a debate – they’re interested in hectoring the president.)
That said, Marc Ambinder has, I think provided an interesting, comprehensive read on how Obama went from skeptic (like myself) to supporter of military intervention – but only in the rear guard of an international effort — in the case of Libya. A clip:
As a fleet of French airplanes lacerated a column of Libyan army vehicles near Benghazi on Saturday, President Obama stuck to his prearranged schedule in Brazil, receiving whispered updates from his aides. Within three hours, more than 100 cruise missiles had hit two dozen targets in Libya. That’s just “the first phase,” William Gortney, the director of the Joint Staff, told reporters.
What he didn’t say: It’s the first phase of what will become Barack Obama’s first new war. By directing the military to hit targets inside Libya, the Obama administration is trying to strike an incredibly delicate balance between a strong disinclination to invade a Muslim country and their determined desire to avoid looking like they’re walking away from the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents.
When Muammar el-Qaddafi first struck back against protesters, Obama hoped that tough sanctions and material support to the opposition would be enough to force the dictator from power. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned him that a “no fly zone” would be ineffective and essentially commit the country to war. By Monday night, it was clear to Obama that this policy wasn’t working. Countries like Iran were getting the wrong message. The Libyan military was selectively testing the patience of the world by striking opposition strongholds. The opposition was pinned down in the port city of Benghazi, swelled by tens of thousands of refugees. Qaddafi kept using a phrase that stuck in Obama’s head: “no mercy.” And France, smarting from seeming to abandon Egyptians during their time of trouble, along with the U.K., were champing at the bit to use force. The Arab League had kicked Libya out and was closer to the French position. It risked its own legitimacy, already questioned by many in the region, if it didn’t side with the rebels.
On Tuesday, during a meeting of his national security team, Obama said he wanted a new policy. “Clearly, what we’re doing is not enough,” he said, according to contemporaneous notes kept by a participant. A “humanitarian disaster” was imminent unless something was done. He wanted more options.
Gates wanted to game out scenarios, knowing that any effective no-fly zone would necessitate a cascade of other military actions that would look a heck of a lot like an invasion, no matter how carefully it was done.
Thomas Donilon, the national security adviser and one of the gatekeepers of Obama’s foreign policy, was worried about the strategic implications of both allowing Qaddafi to succeed in retaking control of Benghazi as well as what would happen down the road in other countries if a successful military response ousted him from power with a minimum of bloodshed. Even the lightest military footprint would result in civilian casualties, he warned. Almost as inevitable would be the death of a coalition soldier or the downing of an airplane.
Hillary Rodham Clinton said instability in Libya threatened to clip the democratic aspirations of its two neighbors, Egypt and Tunisia. She was also worried about the message to Iran if the U.S. and its allies did nothing in Libya: America was so afraid of committing its military to protect Muslims and Arabs that it would allow virtually anything to happen.
The meeting broke up.
Read the rest here. Well worth your time.
The Libyan regime has been nothing but defiant, even amid the strikes. Both Qaddafi and his son Saif have made statements and given interviews denouncing the international effort, and accusing Obama and the Europeans of “siding with the terrorists.”
Also, the U.S. military, in the person of Gen. Mike Mullen, remains extraordinarily cautious – warning of a potential stalemate. The world community will need a plan “B” to deal with a potentially de facto partitioned Libya (a la the Kurdish north in Iraq) or even a Libya with Qaddafi still in power, no fly zone or none.
UPDATE: The White Hous releases first pics of the president’s meetings with his national security team in Brazil (courtesy of The Nation):