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The Real Scandal of the Libyan War

The true scandal here is that an administration can concoct a half-baked justification to attack another country and they will encounter very little resistance.

Benjamin Friedman describes the real scandal of the Libyan war:

If a tenth of the scrutiny Congress devoted to Benghazi went to the administration’s case for bombing Libya in 2011, that case would collapse. The flaws in the case were clear then, and Libya’s postwar disintegration, of which Benghazi’s chaos was symptomatic, just makes them clearer. The real scandal is the U.S. war in Libya and Congress’ failure to exercise its war powers and interrogate its rationales.

Yesterday I talked about one of the reasons why there is so little interest in Congress in challenging the administration on its actual foreign policy record, and I explained how Republican hawks’ ideological blinders prevented them from seeing and attacking the administration for its genuinely lousy policies. That’s an important factor, but there are others.

Another reason why the administration has been able to get away with the Libyan war in all its illegality is that there are very few members of Congress in either party that want to challenge the executive when it comes to waging war. This has become even more obvious as Congress continues to avoid debating or voting on the war on ISIS, but it was already impossible to miss in 2011. Very few in Congress think there is a need to rein in presidential warmaking, and there are even fewer that are willing to make the attempt. The deeper problem that the Libyan war reveals is that our representatives in Congress have completely forfeited their role in deciding whether and how the U.S. should wage war, and that leaves us at the mercy of the whims of the president. When he feels reluctant to intervene, the U.S. stays out, and when he “turns on a dime” and decides that regime change should happen the U.S. works to overthrow a foreign government. Nothing could be more arbitrary and contrary to our system of government, and yet it seems to have become the norm. If members of Congress aren’t interested in keeping the executive in check (and most of them aren’t), they have no incentive to question the dubious and often bogus arguments administration officials and presidents make in support of the latest intervention. Questioning the case for war leads to questioning the president’s right to start the war, and virtually no one wants to do that.

Friedman does a fine job pointing out that the case for the Libyan war was and is exceptionally weak (as some of us said at the time), and looks worse with the passage of time. Libyan war supporters once claimed that discouraging other regimes from resorting to violence against peaceful protesters was “one of the strongest arguments” for intervention. This wasn’t true when the claim was made. In light of the brutal crackdowns in Bahrain, Egypt, and Syria that have happened in the years since then, we can appreciate just how wrong it was. Another argument for intervention was that it would protect civilians, and yet the net effect of a war for regime change has been to make civilians throughout Libya and in other countries less secure than they were. The central claim in favor of the intervention was that it prevented large-scale loss of life in Benghazi, and that has always been very doubtful. The true scandal here is that an administration can concoct a half-baked justification to attack another country and they will encounter very little resistance and their claims will receive almost no scrutiny when it matters.



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