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The Libyan War and Hindsight

I understand what Michael Cohen is trying to do here, but this is still wrong:

The instability in Libya, and its impact on the region, seemingly makes the case that the U.S. intervention is responsible for the disaster that followed. But at the time, the argument for U.S. involvement was strong, or at the very least quite defensible [bold mine-DL].

There were three main arguments for the intervention in the spring of 2011, and all of them were very weak when they were made and only looked worse over time. The first was that Gaddafi was preparing to slaughter the civilian population of Benghazi. That wasn’t what he appeared to be threatening to do. That alone wouldn’t have been sufficient to invoke the “responsibility to protect” in any case. One of the more annoying aspects of the pro-intervention case was that the U.S. and its allies would hide behind the “responsibility to protect” mantra to gain international support for military action while flouting most of its requirements. The second argument was that by taking action against Gaddafi it would deter other dictators from abusing and killing their own people. This was the “we have to kill some Arabs to save the Arab Spring” argument. That didn’t make sense when interventionists said it four years ago, and in fact it proved to be completely wrong. In order to believe that other regimes would refrain from violent repression because of intervention in Libya, one would have to believe that there was a credible threat that they would face similar attacks. Most proponents of the Libyan war specifically said that Libya was an unusual case that was not likely to be repeated.

The third and weakest argument of all was that the U.S. was somehow compelled to intervene because some European and Arab governments wanted it to. This took different forms. One was that the U.S. “owed” European allies because of their support for our wars in the previous decade, and another was that the support of Arab regimes (several of which were cracking down on Bahrain’s protesters at the same time) “legitimized” the intervention and proved that the U.S. wasn’t acting against the wishes of the people in the region. In fact, the U.S. wasn’t obliged to indulge Britain and France in their war of choice, and the Arab regimes that were most enthusiastic for toppling Gaddafi were among the most despotic and least representative in the region and were the farthest away from Libya geographically. The governments closest to Libya didn’t want the intervention to happen (including the African states that the U.S. completely ignored), and regional popular opinion was always skeptical of Western intervention and onlybecamemore so over time.

Opponents of the Libyan war aren’t relying on hindsight to fault Clinton for her bad judgment in backing intervention. We saw the flaws in the case for intervention clearly from the start, and we explained them again and again to no avail. I doubt Clinton will pay any political price for once again making the wrong call on a foreign war, but there is no question that she should still be held to account for being a major supporter of an unwise, illegal, and unnecessary war.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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