Daniel Larison

Through the Looking-Glass

So Gates disclosed that “we have made provisions to have our strike aircraft available on a short period of time,” should NATO be unable to stop an unfolding humanitarian disaster. The AC-130s and A-10s — and, possibly, U.S. warplanes — will be “sort of on a standby.” McCain still characterized that as the U.S. “abdicating its leadership role.”

Gates pushed back. Within NATO, he said “everyone understood the United States would come in heavy and hard in the beginning,” and then pull back to a supporting role.

But Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said the U.S. should stay in “heavy and hard until we have won this thing.” His GOP colleague, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, said she couldn’t understand how to get rid of Gadhafi without “putting our full might in.”

That set Gates off. “When you say putting the full might of U.S. involved, that’s another full scale war in the Middle East,” he said. Gates moved to shut the rhetorical door Adm. James Stavridis opened to a post-Gadhafi NATO peacekeeping mission, noting that the United Nations resolution authorizing the war might consider it an illegal occupation — and besides which, it would be “nearly impossible” for NATO to agree on that mission.

“The last thing this country needs is another exercise in nationbuilding,” Gates warned. “The future of Libya, the U.S. ought not take responsibility for that.” Gates essentially pleaded for patience from the Senate, for NATO warplanes to pound loyalist forces until the military turns on Gadhafi. ~Spencer Ackerman

It’s tempting to feel sorry for Gates in all of this. After all, he did his best in public to make the idea of intervening in Libya seem as unnecessary and foolish as possible, he has made a point of correctly telling people that Libya is unimportant to the U.S., and he seems intent on making sure that the U.S. isn’t dragged into a commitment beyond what Gates initially believed would be happening. Regardless, this is partly Gates’ responsibility and partly his fault. He must know as well as anyone that once the U.S. was involved, it wasn’t going to matter whether it formally became a NATO operation or not, and he had to know that the expectation would be that U.S. forces would be expected to do most of the work for as long as the war lasted. After years of trying to get European governments to do more in Afghanistan, Gates should have known better than anyone that there was no political will and not many military resources for European allies to rely on in a Libyan campaign.

Adam Garfinkle referred to intervening in Libya as going down the rabbit hole, and it certainly has the feeling of going through the looking-glass. Garfinkle also wondered how Gates could do anything but resign now that the war had started. 12 days in, we’re still wondering.

There are weird, inverted resemblances to Iraq that most Libyan war supporters want to pretend aren’t there. Instead of the reckless, unprepared Pentagon pushing for an invasion over the objections of more cautious State Department officials, we have the reckless, unprepared State Department officials insisting on a war the Pentagon sees as pointless. In other words, the people whose expertise was most relevant and should have been heeded were deliberately sidelined, and the people who had no idea what they were getting into prevailed.

The roles and political positions of the American and British governments are reversed. Where Britain was dragged along behind Bush into Iraq by Blair supposedly to keep the “special relationship” intact, Obama has given the impression that he and his administration have been dragged along behind Britain (and France) by Cameron for the sake of allied solidarity. Cameron’s Cabinet is the one staffed with rather neoconservative ideologues (e.g., Fox, Gove, etc.), and Obama has become the trendy center-left political leader who tries to reassure a skeptical world that the latest stupid war is actually necessary and good.

We also have in Gates a skeptical member of Obama’s Cabinet who enjoys a good reputation for competence, but someone who is nonetheless forced to go out and defend a policy that he has to know is profoundly ill-advised. Like Powell, Gates has remained in place despite the fact that he obviously wanted no part of this Libya business. What makes Gates’ failure to resign over this so puzzling is that he is already on his way out the door. The attack on Libya would have given him an easy way to leave now, and he could have washed his hands of the policy decision he had tried to get Obama not to make. Perhaps if Obama had seriously thought he might lose Gates with all the bad publicity and controversy that would entail, he might have given the matter much more thought before he plunged into the middle of this.

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Rubio: Let’s Make Libya Into Somalia

Marco Rubio has sent a letter to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell on Libya, and he reminds us why we shouldn’t take him seriously on foreign policy:

I am writing to seek your support for bringing a bi-partisan resolution to the Senate floor authorizing the President’s decision to participate in allied military action in Libya.

Furthermore, this resolution should also state that removing Muammar Qaddafi from power is in our national interest and therefore should authorize the President to accomplish this goal. To that end, the resolution should urge the President to immediately recognize the Interim Transitional National Council as the legitimate government in Libya.

Shorter Rubio: Let’s compound our horrible mistake by breaking international law, and imitate the most impulsive, foolish decisions of the French.

While Congress absolutely should and must vote on Libya, escalating things with a Libyan Liberation Act or something of that sort and recognizing a ramshackle rebel leadership as the government of Libya would make a horrible Libya policy even worse. By some accounts, the National Council is rapidly losing the confidence of eastern Libyans, and it is extremely generous to claim that it is functioning as a government of anything right now. As John Lee Anderson reported:

What they are not is organized. No one can explain how the Benghazi council works with the National Council. Last week, another shadow government, the Crisis Management Council, was announced in Benghazi; it was unclear how its leader, a former government planning expert named Mahmoud Jibril, would coördinate with Jalil, or whether he had supplanted him.

The rebels barely have a fighting force, and it is doubtful that most Libyans outside of Cyrenaica would accept a government based in Benghazi propped up by Western support. Rubio is proposing that we follow the example of international support for the Somali Federal Transitional Government, which controls Mogadishu and a few other pockets and wouldn’t even control most of that without Ethiopian intervention. Worse than our own South Ossetia, which is at least theoretically independent from Georgia on its own terms, the U.S. would have to pretend that the Benghazi Provisional National Council is the Libyan government and that it has sovereign claims over the rest of the country. Once the U.S. recognizes the council, we will find that this obliges us politically to keep them from failing. This would not hasten Gaddafi’s departure, but it would fracture Libya and start the U.S. down the long, excruciating path to partitioning Libya. This would almost certainly mean that the rebel council would come to be seen as lackeys of Western powers, and most Libyans in the areas controlled by Gaddafi might conclude that keeping Libya together is more important than removing Gaddafi.

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They Had To Destroy the “Responsibility to Protect” Doctrine To Save It

Advocates of the Libyan intervention have invoked the “responsibility to protect” to justify the campaign. But R2P is narrowly and specifically aimed at stopping genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity on a very large scale. It does not give the international community an excuse to pick sides in a civil war when convenient [bold mine-DL]. Qaddafi has certainly committed crimes against humanity in this brief war, but R2P was designed to stop widespread, systematic, sustained, orchestrated crimes. If Qaddafi’s barbarity meets that threshold, the administration hasn’t made the case yet, and I’m not convinced. If R2P justifies Libya, then it certainly obligates us to overthrow the governments of Sudan and North Korea and to do whatever it takes to prevent the Taliban from seizing power in Kabul. ~Paul Miller

It is encouraging to see someone else making this important point. It’s worth adding that supporters of the Libyan war have conveniently identified their cause with the one part of the “responsibility to protect” that calls for armed intervention, but have very carefully ignored the responsibility to prevent conflict over the last few months in Ivory Coast. If Secretary Gates has anything to say about it, the U.S. will have nothing to do with the responsibility to rebuild, which is the third part of the doctrine.

I can think of few things more damaging and discrediting to the cause of mobilizing international action to respond to genuine cases of genocide and systematic regime crimes than a misguided intervention in a civil war that has nothing to do with the “responsibility to protect.” The Libyan war could very easily do for the “responsibility to protect” what the Iraq war did for the reputation of democracy promotion and U.S. non-proliferation policy. In Iraq, democracy promotion became the excuse for why the U.S. was in Iraq after the WMDs were not found, and democratization became associated with the massive carnage of Iraq’s sectarian violence. One wonders what the new justification for Libya will be after most people realize that the original justification was bogus.

Administration officials are obviously haunted by Rwanda, but as Miller says this civil war has nothing in common with what happened in Rwanda. Meanwhile, humanitarian interventionists aren’t just fighting the last war (i.e., Bosnia), so to speak, but they’re fighting the last war that didn’t even happen the way they remember it.

P.S. There’s also the related problem that intervening governments that want to arm the rebels would be going far beyond what the resolution actually authorizes, which would make it much harder in the future for the Security Council to agree on how to respond to other crises. The continuation of the Libyan war has the potential to damage both R2P and future international cooperation through the U.N. Score two for those far-sighted “progressive internationalists.”

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Revolutionaries Usually Show No Mercy To “Enemies of the Revolution”

The Independent has another account of the “liberators” in Bin Jawad:

Some local resentment has also been fuelled by the rebels’ hunt for “fifth columnists” supposedly colluding with the Gaddafi forces. In Bin Jawad, The Independent witnessed around 220 men, either members of the Hosseini clan or people associated with them, being dragged out of their homes, beaten up and taken away. The “arrests” took place as the rebels traded fire at the gates of the town with regime troops. Residents, already frightened, saw doors being kicked down by Shabaab fighters who also fired at windows where they claimed to have seen snipers.

One danger of any rapid political change justified in terms of overthrowing a tyrant is that revolutionaries tend to see anyone not actively working with them as potential enemies, and once collaborating with a tyrant has been defined as treason, as many of the rebels seem to define it, the logic of slaughtering those collaborators becomes more powerful. One of the problems with endorsing the cause of the weaker party in a civil war is that any government that does so has probably just aligned itself with the side that will be more desperate and possibly less inclined to use restraint in handling detainees and suspected “traitors” than the more powerful side. The less effective that the rebels are against Gaddafi’s forces, the more they may take their frustrations out on those people, whether suspected regime loyalists or unfortunate migrant workers, who happen to be in their power. Valorizing and cheering for one side in a conflict we don’t fully understand creates serious blind spots, and so does relying on overwrought mythology about previous interventions.

Der Spiegel reports on the atmosphere of distrust and paranoia in Benghazi:

No one dares to go out at night, as rounds of machine gun fire thunder through the empty streets. National Council members are no longer seen in public and they’re hard to reach for interviews. “There are death squads on both sides,” [bold mine-DL] says Nasser Buisier, who fled to the US when he was 17, but has returned for the revolution. Buisier’s father is a former information minister, but was also a critic of Gadhafi, and his son doesn’t have much that’s positive to say about the new leadership. “Most of them never had to make sacrifices, they were part of the regime and I don’t believe they want elections,” Buisier says. He believes the National Council is on the verge of collapse [bold mine-DL] and once that happens, he’d rather not be in Benghazi.

When Westerners say that they want to arm the rebels, I don’t think they mean that they want to arm people to organize death squads in Benghazi. There is something genuinely quite odd about some of the liberal enthusiasm for the rebels’ cause. If someone could go back and tell the same people 25 years ago that they would one day be cheering direct U.S. military support for a group of Libyan contras, they would have probably laughed at him, but that is what is happening. The news today was that Gaddafi’s foreign minister and former intelligence chief fled to Britain. That’s interesting, but if one had to bet on which crumbled first one would probably choose the National Council instead.

The report from Der Spiegel continues:

Around 100 regime loyalists have recently been imprisoned. Armed young men are searching houses and also arresting sub-Saharan Africans, anyone they assume to be mercenaries and all those they simply refer to as spies, locking them up in the same prisons once used to hold opposition members. They are then shown off to busloads of journalists. The prisoners sit in dark cells that stink of feces and urine. They say they’re from Mali, Chad, Sudan, that they’re construction workers and were dragged out of their houses.

The rebels’ mood, exuberant and lighthearted in the beginning, has shifted. Their rhetoric is becoming increasingly tense and they dismiss any criticism as propaganda. One former air force commander — now “spokesman for the revolutionary armed forces” — says, “anyone who fights against our revolutionary army is fighting against the people and will be treated accordingly.”

Another man, also a member of the National Council, talks about “enemies of the revolution” and declares that anyone who doesn’t join the rebel side will get a taste of revolutionary justice: “We know where they are and we will find them.”

These are the same threats, word for word, that Gadhafi uses to scare his opponents.

One can correctly argue that they have learned all of this from Gaddafi, and that he is responsible for so debasing the political culture in Libya and inflicting so much brutality on his people that he is partly responsible for how they imitate him when they retaliate against him and his followers. It still doesn’t help explain why so many Westerners are eager to increase the flow of weapons into Libya and help bring about the day when these rebels might have the strength to do to loyalists in Sirte and Tripoli what they are doing to migrant laborers and detainees in eastern Libya right now.

Update: NATO governments seem to recognize the potential for rebel attacks on civilian populations, and have warned the rebels accordingly:

Members of the NATO alliance have sternly warned the rebels in Libya not to attack civilians as they push against the regime of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, according to senior military and government officials.

As NATO takes over control of airstrikes in Libya and the Obama administration considers new steps to tip the balance of power there, the coalition has told the rebels that the fog of war will not shield them from possible bombardment by NATO planes and missiles, just as the regime’s forces have been punished.

“We’ve been conveying a message to the rebels that we will be compelled to defend civilians, whether pro-Qaddafi or pro-opposition,” said a senior Obama administration official. “We are working very hard behind the scenes with the rebels so we don’t confront a situation where we face a decision to strike the rebels to defend civilians.”

This would be appropriate and consistent with the resolution. It doesn’t make the intervention any more necessary or wise, because it guarantees that the civil war will be prolonged, more people will be displaced, and ultimately more people will end up dying, but at least it suggests that the U.S. and our allies are not going to be actively aiding the rebels no matter what they do.

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Put Not Your Trust In Princes

The White House would forge ahead with military action in Libya even if Congress passed a resolution constraining the mission, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a classified briefing to House members Wednesday afternoon …Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who asked Clinton about the War Powers Act during a classified briefing, said Clinton and the administration are sidestepping the measure’s provisions giving Congress the ability to put a 60-day time limit on any military action.

“They are not committed to following the important part of the War Powers Act,” he told TPM in a phone interview. “She said they are certainly willing to send reports [to us] and if they issue a press release, they’ll send that to us too.” ~TalkingPointsMemo

Via Andrew

This is an outrageous statement, but it’s entirely consistent with what the administration has been illegally doing for the last 12 days. They seem to believe quite seriously that, as long as they don’t call it a war, it doesn’t fall under any laws regulating war powers or the Constitution. The sliver of good news in all of this is that Obama and his officials are showing such contempt for American law and institutions that they are exposing themselves to a serious political backlash. War supporters won’t be able to hide behind the conceit that the war is legal. As far as U.S. law is concerned, it has never been legal, and only people making the most maximalist claims of inherent executive power can believe otherwise. Anyone who continues to support the war from this point on will be revealed as being either a blind Obama loyalist, an ideological liberal interventionist, or a devotee of the cult of the Presidency.

This is as good an occasion as any to make a few observations about the loaded language of “values” in the Libya debate. As the debate has unfolded, opponents of the Libyan war have framed our arguments most in terms of national interests and repeatedly demonstrated that the Libyan war doesn’t serve any vital or significant interests. Those are important arguments, and they’re necessary for showing why the war is wrong and unnecessary, but no less important is what the war says about American “values.” War supporters would very much like to make the debate over war an argument between people who support democracy and human rights (their side) and people who couldn’t care less about them (the other side), but what they have missed is that it is the backers of humanitarian intervention who are assaulting some basic American republican and democratic political principles. As David Rieff said the other day:

Why Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, or David Cameron feel that who rules Libya is any of their affair, and why they were more intent on securing the (grudging) assent of the Arab League than the assent of their own legislatures, shows just how misguided the doctrine of humanitarian intervention really is. These leaders are more intent on imposing democracy by force than in honoring the democratic judgment of their parliaments at home.

So, yes, this is an argument over “values” as well as interests, and the supporters of the war are willing to sacrifice concrete interests and jeopardize fundamental American values for the sake of intervening in another country’s civil war for what are very debatable humanitarian reasons. Americans are being asked to choose what we value more. Do we actually value self-government, the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances, and constitutional republicanism, or are we content to let all of those things be trashed on the whim of a relative handful of people for the sake of ideology and good intentions? Do we believe that the President must act within the law, or do we believe he is above it? Will we resist “angelic Caesarism” (as Rieff put it) or fall in line like the passive subjects the administration expects us to be?

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The “Liberation Movement” in Libya

After having been driven back from the town of Bin Jawwad on Tuesday, the rebels retreated through the oil hubs of Ras Lanuf and Brega on Wednesday en route to the strategic city of Ajdabiya, fighters reported. Rebels in a motley assortment of vehicles raced eastward on both lanes of the coastal highway toward Ajdabiya after coming under shelling in Brega from the more heavily armed Gaddafi forces, witnesses said. ~The Washington Post

Time has an interesting item on Bin Jawad from earlier today:

Bin Jawad, however innocuous it may seem in the sunshine, is not a town that Gaddafi intends to lose. And indeed, it may prove to be a trickier battle zone than the previous towns the rebels have conquered. The reasons may run deeper than Gaddafi’s heavy weapons. “Bin Jawad didn’t want to support us from the beginning,” says Fayez Mohamed Zwei, a fighter from Ajdabiyah. “The whole east was with us except Bin Jawad.”

Indeed, Bin Jawad may be the first town in the rebels’ westward push where many of the townspeople are not on their side.

It seems it was just the other day that pro-rebel enthusiasts here in the West were celebrating the rebel advance. Oh, right, it was just the other day, because the rebels cannot hold territory once they come under attack.

Sorry, did I say rebel advance? I meant to say glorious triumph of the “liberation movement.” When I see someone write enthusiastically about a foreign “liberation movement,” I ask myself what he is trying to sell me, because there are few more loaded and propagandistic ways to describe an insurrection than that. There are few words in political discourse more abused than liberation, especially when it comes to rebellions. Just eight years since we heard endless cheers for the “liberation” of Iraq, I cannot believe that otherwise reasonable people would resort to such language. When some war supporters use this language, it does help to distinguish between the people who approve of the original purpose of the intervention as authorized by the Security Council to protect civilians against attack and those that are intent on having the U.S. and our allies prolong and escalate the conflict (which the Security Council did not authorize) to achieve a certain political result. There is no satisfaction to be taken from any of this. It is a reminder that outside governments plunged into an internal conflict on the losing side without a plan.

The Bin Jawad anecdote caught my attention. There has been a fairly concerted effort on the part of supporters of Western intervention to minimize the extent of support for Gaddafi and/or neutrality among most of the Libyan population. The Libyan civil war isn’t so much a civil war between competing factions, they want to tell us, but an uprising of “the people” against “the regime.” One side is assumed to have broad backing, and the other very limited popular support. Of course, if that assumption is wrong, almost everything else about the case for intervention collapses. The rebels are presumed to possess some greater political legitimacy because they are opposed to Gaddafi, but that doesn’t follow at all.

Certainly, Bin Jawad is just one small town. It may not be representative. What continues to amaze me is the confidence that war supporters have that people in eastern Libya who hail from a different region than Gaddafi and have more reason than most to hate Gaddafi are representative of most Libyans. Do most Libyans want a less repressive and brutal government? That seems clear. Do most of them want to achieve that end through armed violence backed by outside governments? That’s much less certain.

Meanwhile, we should be very wary of applauding anyone in this conflict. Here is another part of Bin Jawwad report on the “liberators”:

The rebels did not take chances with a town they could no longer trust. After pushing back into Bin Jawad on Tuesday afternoon, the rebels quickly set about searching the streets and homes of the town for hidden troops, mercenaries and traitors. “Alley to alley, house to house,” shouted one man at the fighters as trucks veered down Bin Jawad’s unpaved, bumpy side streets. He used Gaddafi’s own words — an infamous threat from an earlier speech that is often repeated in the rebel-held east. It’s meant to mock the Colonel; it’s even graffitied on the walls. But as the rebels tread into unwelcome territory, they seem to mean it in much the way Gaddafi did — in a kind of unrelenting and paranoid door-to-door campaign to rout their enemies. “Search the houses,” another man shouted, as fighters ran down Bin Jawad’s alleys and took up position behind walls. Gunfire and the explosions of rocket-propelled grenades reverberated from within the town. At least one house was set on fire after rebels located a suspected Gaddafi loyalist there [bold mine-DL].

Brutal reprisals are part of many civil wars, but what I still don’t understand is why the U.S. should want to be associated with any of this.

Now that our government has been needlessly entangled in this conflict, it would be far better to halt military operations and seek a negotiated settlement. Perhaps using Turkish or African Union mediation, it is worth exploring whether a cease-fire and amnesty for rebels could be negotiated. The alternative is a military stalemate enforced by our planes and a prolonged conflict that will continue to displace and harm civilians.

Update: It appears that the rebels have begun retreating from Ajdabiya as well.

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Michele Bachmann, Voice of Reason?

Rep. Michele Bachmann, continuing her drumbeat of criticism of President Obama’s policies and priorities, ripped his rationale Wednesday for intervening in Libya, arguing that it isn’t justified by any compelling national interest.

The Tea Party stalwart, riding a wave of national attention since aides said she may be on the cusp of a presidential run, also said she opposes giving military assistance to the rebels fighting Libya strongman Moammar Gadhafi, saying she believes al Qaida fighters have infiltrated their ranks.

“I would not have gone in” to Libya, Bachmann said on NBC’s “Today” show.

Bachmann said what she calls the “Obama doctrine” provides a misguided rationale for the United States “to enter into one country after another.” ~Minneapolis Star-Tribune

I don’t have any illusions that Michele Bachmann is antiwar as such, but this is exactly the sort of thing that Tea Partiers and Tea Party-aligned members of Congress needed to be saying from the beginning. It remains the case that there aren’t very many of them saying this, but it is encouraging that one of the better-known House members connected to Tea Party activists has decided to speak out against this war. Along with Rand Paul, Bachmann has become one of the more outspoken Tea Party Republican critics of Obama’s decision. As I have said before, the Libyan war is everything that Tea Partiers claim to loathe: it is unconstitutional, it is unnecessary, it serves no national interests, it could end up lending support to jihadists, it is a war waged to enforce a U.N. resolution, it has weak public support, and it is a war fought partly to strengthen a doctrine that subverts national sovereignty. If there is any military intervention that Tea Partiers absolutely should oppose, it is this one.

Bachmann has a reputation for occasionally saying inflammatory or misinformed things, and she may be staking out this position simply to oppose what Obama is doing, but what should give supporters of the Libyan war pause is that Bachmann is making far more sense on this issue than Obama and many of his defenders.

P.S. Sean Scallon’s profile of Michele Bachmann from the May issue of the magazine is well worth reading to understand Bachmann’s background and her relationship to the Tea Party movement.

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Trying To Make a War of Choice Seem Inevitable

There was no mad rush to war, and certainly no master plan to invade Libya to grab its oil. The administration resisted intervening militarily until they had no choice, preferring at first to use diplomatic means and economic sanctions to signal that Qaddafi’s use of force would not help keep him in power. The military intervention came when those had failed, and when Qaddafi’s forces were closing in on Benghazi and he was declaring his intention to exterminate them like rats. ~Marc Lynch

Supporters of a military action are always supremely confident that the administration responsible for taking that action did not rush to war and had no other choice. It’s important to point out that these are not impartial observations or balanced descriptions of the situation. They are rhetorical devices designed to make outrageous, reckless, controversial decisions seem well-reasoned, careful, and unavoidable. When opponents of the war in Iraq described Bush’s relentless push to attack Iraq as the “rush to war,” advocates of the invasion emphasized how long, careful, and well-aired the period before the invasion was. Compared to Libya, those defenders of the Iraq invasion have a point.

Critics of both Iraq and Libya have likewise emphasized the hastiness of presidential decisions, but when wars are unnecessary the decision to go to war will always appear hasty. After all, if there is no just cause for war, any decision for war will seem impetuous and ill-considered. What needs to be emphasized here is that the decision to intervene in Libya really was hasty and ill-considered. I’ll quote Exum again:

Although some of the administration’s most vociferous detractors have claimed the president “dithered” on Libya, the reality is that the administration deliberated and then acted on Libya in too hasty and too closed a manner.

Obama reportedly changed his mind on the evening of Tuesday, March 15. The war started on March 19. For a war that has nothing to do with repelling or retaliating against a sudden attack, that’s pretty hasty no matter how you look at it.

The claim that the administration had no choice is just not true. This may be the least necessary, most arbitrary foreign war in U.S. history. Obviously, the President concluded that intervening as Gaddafi’s forces were approaching Benghazi was the right choice, but one of the reasons this is so questionable is that the decision seems to have been reached with little or no concern for the consequences beyond the immediate goal of preventing the fall of Benghazi. One of the reasons there seems to have been little or no concern for these consequences is that the decision was a hasty one driven by a mixture of panic about what might happen and guilt over things that happened in the ’90s during the Clinton administration.

Lynch continues:

It [Libya] did matter more to core U.S. national interests because the outcome would affect the entire Middle East.

As far as I can tell, this is a conviction that doesn’t seem to have much to support it. Granted, Libya was receiving extensive coverage, and “the whole Arab world was watching,” but the effect of not intervening simply wouldn’t be as powerful as supporters of the war claim. Besides, are we seriously accepting the assumption that the United States government should make its policy based on Al Jazeera’s editorial decisions regarding which political crisis it chooses to cover the most? When assessing the importance of Libya to core U.S. interests, there also needs to be more attention to costs as well as purported benefits. As Exum and Hosford write:

In contrast to its neighbor, Egypt – a country of 83 million people – Libya has just 6.5 million people, barely three percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and has never been a bellwether in the Arabic-speaking world. The interests the United States does have in Libya, such as protecting civilians and providing momentum to the revolutionary fervor sweeping the broader region, come at a potentially high cost by exposing the United States to considerable risk of protracted and resource-intensive conflict.

And again:

But the military operations in Libya are also incurring opportunity costs. As the United States once again intervenes militarily, competing spending priorities, both foreign and domestic, are ignored. Such operations shift the U.S. focus away from countries like Iraq and Afghanistan (which still include over 130,000 U.S. troops), South and East Asia, and other strategically and economically critical regions. This leaves many
to question why the United States and its allies are devoting resources to a country of relatively low strategic importance in North Africa.

Finally, as I have mentioned before, Paul Pillar reminds us of the security costs the U.S. is already incurring and may continue to incur in the future:

Much has been said about what lessons other authoritarian regimes in the region will draw if the Libyan ruler is allowed to use force to stay in power. We also should think about the lessons that will be drawn if someone who gave up not only terrorism but also his unconventional weapons programs in return for normal relations and acceptance in the international community is made a target for regime change. The lesson that the mullahs in Tehran and others will draw is that it would be useless to reach any agreement with the West about terrorism or nuclear weapons because the West is really interested above all in regime change and, regardless of any agreements that may have been reached, will seize the first opportunity that comes along to try to realize that goal.

Weighing all of these costs against the possible benefits of intervention, which are as vague and ill-defined as the mission, one would have assumed that the U.S. had no choice but to stay out. Of course, there is always a choice, and Obama made the wrong one.

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Speaking of Fundamentally Dishonest…

The Libyan rebels were well on their way to marching on Tripoli, until Obama’s dithering at the United Nations gave Gaddafi time to drive them back to the gates of Benghazi. ~Marc Thiessen

Anyone paying the slightest attention to the military capabilities of the rebels over the last few weeks knows that this is nonsense. Despite over a week of bombing and strikes on Gaddafi’s ground forces, the rebels have been unable to hold any territory once they face a counter-attack, and they are already losing the ground they “took” in the last few days. Each time the rebels have encountered stiff resistance, they have faltered, and as soon as Gaddafi’s forces go back on the offensive they flee in pell-mell retreat. This is understandable, as they are for the most part not trained soldiers, and their adversaries are significantly better-armed and trained. The idea that they were “well on their way to marching on Tripoli” is a bad joke, and if there’s anything more outrageous than the misguided policy Obama has chosen it is the lie that an earlier intervention would have secured rebel victory. As we are seeing, the Libyan rebels are not capable of obtaining victory without U.S. and allied forces eliminating most of Gaddafi’s forces for them.

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We Don’t Need To Be China, But We Could Try Being America Again

The part where the president pointed out that we are not China. We cannot afford to remain who we are and take some detached, uber-realist view of the world. We do not just let atrocities happen. (Well, we do. But it’s true that it offends Americans, in our psyche, to stand aside when atrocities are taking place.) Values matter to the United States — even when our interests are unclear. We act on our perceived values and do not always take the kind of cold, calculating approach to things that some foreign policy analysts (myself, often, included) wish we would take. ~Andrew Exum

The more I think about this “America is different” argument, the more it drives me up the wall. It’s not just that it is a bad excuse to do the wrong thing (i.e., start a war). It’s not true! It didn’t offend most Americans in their psyches or anywhere else when Georgian forces launched Grad rockets on Tshkinvali’s sleeping civilian population, and it didn’t offend most of them in their psyches when Lebanon was treated as a bombing range in 2006, and it never even crossed their minds to feel anything when the Krajina Serbs fled from an advancing army that was committing atrocities against them. Considering that these actions were all carried out by U.S. allies, and in some cases using arms and training provided to them by the U.S., there should have been more offended American psyches rather than fewer, but this was not the case.

This isn’t because Americans are morally callous or indifferent to human suffering, but partly because all of these outrageous acts were usually presented to the American public as self-defense, or as an unfortunate but necessary action, or as a regrettable but understandable overreaction against the real “bad guys.” In some of these cases, many Americans might not have heard anything about it until much later once their opinions about the conflict had already formed and hardened, but even those that were aware of the harm that was being done to civilians during these operations either denied that they happened, blamed the victims, or shrugged them off. The point isn’t just that there are double standards for what allied governments do, which is obvious, but that Americans don’t have any greater impulse to prevent atrocities than any other nation, and the belief that “it offends Americans, in our psyche, to stand aside when atrocities are taking place” is another expression of that self-congratulation I was criticizing earlier today.

When government officials, journalists, and pundits present a situation as an atrocity or an atrocity-in-the-making, most of the public usually accepts the story. The story may be true or not, but what matters is how it and the relevant actors are presented to them. The less familiar they are with the situation, the more likely they are to believe the story. Gaddafi is someone the public already knows about, so it is easy for everyone to assume the worst. As Paul Pillar points out:

The overdrawn picture of how much blood of innocent Libyans would be shed if the regime had been allowed to proceed unmolested by foreign air power is, despite Qaddafi’s track record, only worst case speculation.

Did we remain “who we are” while “letting” those things happen in South Ossetia, Lebanon, and Croatia? I think we did. Perhaps if we had a less exalted opinion of “who we are,” we wouldn’t be so anxious about minding our own business and leaving other nations to sort out their internal affairs. I continue to hope that what “we” are doing in Libya is definitely not a reflection of who we are as a people. Perhaps if we had less ambition to vindicate our “values” around the world whenever possible, we might do a better job of securing our interests and otherwise leaving other nations in peace.

No, we aren’t China, but there are a lot of perfectly decent governments that aren’t China, either, and they don’t feel the need to meddle in every crisis that shows up on television. Notice that no one ever says, “We aren’t India,” because someone might wonder what would be so terrible about being a large democracy that refrains from plunging into wars even when it has cause to do so. We are always asked to choose between hyper-active “values”-saturated empire or Chinese amorality. Now that’s a false choice.

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