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The Disastrous Libyan War

Opponents of the Libyan war were right about almost everything from the start.

I agree with Joel Gillin that the Libyan war should be a huge liability for Hillary Clinton. Clinton was responsible to a large degree for the policy that the administration pursued in Libya. Clinton owns the policy in Libya more than anything else from Obama’s foreign policy record in the first term, and if there were any real accountability in our foreign policy debates her role in pushing for the intervention would be thoroughly discrediting. Of course, we know that isn’t going to happen. Gillin alludes to the reason why it won’t near the end:

Indeed, many establishment politicians are unable to offer sincere criticisms of her on Libya: The liberal interventionists of the Obama administration backed the war, as did Republican hawks.

The only criticisms that other Libyan war supporters do make is that the U.S. didn’t get deeply involved enough in Libya. They can’t fault Clinton and Obama for pursuing regime change because they favored the same thing from the beginning, and they can’t challenge the justification for the intervention because they accepted it without question. Clinton’s partisan supporters won’t want to relitigate the Libyan war because it makes their “side” look incompetent on foreign policy, and Republican hawks will frame the failures of the Libyan war as a product of “leading from behind” rather than what it is really is: another disastrous result of reckless interventionism.

Gillin’s article was interesting to me because it recapitulated many of the criticisms of the Libyan war that I and other opponents made at the time, but there is strangely no reference to what the war’s critics said in 2011. Here’s a brief review of some of it. This is far from being exhaustive. We suspected that the justification for the intervention was exaggerated or simply false. We argued that the motivation for it was likely ideological.  We observed that support for the war was based in a misguided belief that the U.S. could get on the “right” side of the “Arab Spring” and that the U.S. would then enjoy a “new beginning” with people across the region. We noticed right away that the administration exceeded the authority provided by the U.N. resolution, and we understood that it was seeking regime change from the start despite Obama’s claims that this was not the goal. We pointed out that the war actually violated the requirements of the “doctrine” that it was supposed to be vindicating. We pointed out that interventionists were staking the reputation of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine on the outcome of the Libyan war, and helped to discredit the doctrine they were using to justify intervention. We noted that attempts by the African Union and others to mediate the conflict were brushed aside and ignored by the intervening governments.

Opponents of the Libyan war were right about almost everything from the start, but that is usually never acknowledged. That’s annoying, but that doesn’t matter. The larger problem is that it creates the impression that critics of the Libyan war have only recently discovered that there was something wrong with the decision to intervene there, when in fact we immediately saw through the weak and nonsensical arguments for the war when they were first being made.  The war’s supporters largely escape blame for being so horribly wrong about the intervention, and the war’s opponents are typically never credited with having warned against the disastrous blunder before it happened.



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