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.