Illustration by Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff
I keep waiting for my opinion about the intervention in Libya to snap into place. For? Against? Too soon? Too late? But every time I try to pin it down, my mind flies off on a different tangent, enthralled by the bizarreness of it all.
It was nearly three years ago that Senator Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, in part on the strength of having the purest “surrender-at-any-cost” position on Iraq. Who then could have predicted the following headline: “Nobel Peace Prize Winner Enters Third War“?
I blogged too quickly the other day about “Libya, Where the French Lead the Way” — although France fired the first shot, it quickly became a U.S.-led operation. Obama has pledged to hand over leadership of the mission “in a matter of days, not weeks” — but hand it over to whom?
Here’s another great, ironic headline: “Gadhafi is Facing a Coalition of the Unwilling.”
The US government, wary of getting stuck in another war in a Muslim country, would like to hand control of the mission over to NATO, but the alliance is divided. At a meeting on Monday, NATO ambassadors failed to agree on whether the alliance should take control of the mission. NATO involvement would require approval by all 28 members. …
Britain and Italy want the alliance to be in charge of the operation, however. Rome has threatened to restrict access to its air bases, which are crucial to the mission, if NATO does not take over control. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested that Britain or France could also take control of the mission, but some NATO officials doubt if either country could handle the operation by itself, according to Reuters.
And what precisely is the mission that would be handed over? Regime change, protecting Libyan citizens, degrading Gaddafi’s power to attack his people — the mission depends on whom you ask on which day. Leslie Gelb, who has served in the departments of Defense and State under Democratic presidents, offers this explanation:
The reason why neither President Obama nor his coalition partners in Britain and France can state a coherent goal for Libya is that none of them have any central interest in the outcome there. It is only when a nation has a clear vital interest that it can state a clear objective for war. They’ve all simply been carried away by their own rhetoric.
Obama’s actions may be inconsistent with his prior record, but George Will’s opinions are consistent. Will is a conservative anti-hawk who opposed the surges in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, he thinks Libya is a bad idea, and I think he may be on more solid ground.
In Libya, mission creep began before the mission did. A no-fly zone would not accomplish what Barack Obama calls “a well-defined goal,” the “protection of civilians.” So the no-fly zone immediately became protection for aircraft conducting combat operations against Gaddafi’s ground forces.
America’s war aim is inseparable from — indeed, obviously is — destruction of that regime. So our purpose is to create a political vacuum, into which we hope — this is the “audacity of hope” as foreign policy — good things will spontaneously flow. But if Gaddafi cannot be beaten by the rebels, are we prepared to supply their military deficiencies? And if the decapitation of his regime produces what the removal of Saddam Hussein did — bloody chaos — what then are our responsibilities regarding the tribal vendettas we may have unleashed? How long are we prepared to police the partitioning of Libya?
I and many others are astounded and concerned by the fact that Obama has launched a military action so quickly. Jonah Goldberg, another columnist with whom I more often agree than otherwise, argues instead that Obama acted too slowly:
Back in February when the Libyan revolution was fresh and had momentum on its side, even a small intervention by the U.S. — say, blowing up the runways at Moammar Kadafi’s military airbases or quietly bribing senior military officers — might have toppled Kadafi. Members of his government were resigning en masse. Pilots were refusing orders to kill fellow Libyans. Soldiers were defecting to the rebels. Libyan citizens openly defied the regime in Tripoli. Nearly everyone thought the madman’s time was up.
That was the time to seize the moment, to give Kadafi a shove when he was already off-balance. If the dictator had been toppled when the rebels were gaining strength, America’s support would have been written off as incidental, with the Libyans taking credit for their own revolution.
But such an approach would have required America to run down the court alone, out ahead of its allies and the international community. For Obama the multilateralist, that would have been too much unilateral hot-dogging.
So Obama slowed things down to set up the play he wanted rather than the play the moment demanded. As a result, Kadafi regained his balance.
Sorry, Jonah, but as bewildered as I am with how fast Obama has moved, I can’t support the idea that he should have moved even faster. At least his initial forbearance was consistent with his history as “Obama the multilateralist.”
A friend said to me on Facebook the other day, “So I’m not happy about this third war, but seriously, aren’t you hawkish types in favor of this sort of thing? And if not, why not?”
My difficulty in pinning down how I feel about the Libya intervention stems from being flabbergasted that we’re in the situation at all. But let me take a shot at it.
I’m obviously not opposed in principle to the use of military force by the United States. I’ve never stopped supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we can’t fix every problem everywhere, we’re stretched financially and militarily now, and I think the Libyan intervention was probably a mistake.
But now that we’ve done it, I hope it’s successful. I don’t root for any American president to fail, especially not in his role as commander-in-chief. “Success” would mean Gadhafi goes quickly and gets replaced by a new tribe that’s at least marginally more democratic, and the U.S. gets disentangled in “weeks, not months,” to use a more realistic version of Obama’s timeline. It could happen that way, but I’m not optimistic.