Iraq: Mission Accomplished!

Quick reaction on my lunch break: We won.

Yes, there are pitfalls and concerns on the road ahead, but it’s one heck of a lot more appropriate now to declare the war “won” than it was for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to declare in 2007 that “this war is lost.”

Obviously it was Bush who (eventually) found the winning strategy, but Obama deserves props for staying the course.

Today is my birthday (never mind what year), I’m off from work, and the entire Northeast seaboard is preparing for Hurricane Irene.  (The Web Goddess snapped a picture this morning of the huge line of people at the local Home Depot, waiting for delivery of an undetermined number of portable generators, expected to arrive at an undetermined time.)  So what’s on my mind on this Kirk-and-Irene-themed day?

Libya, of course. Specifically, whether President Obama deserves any credit for what tentatively seems to be shaping up as a reasonably OK outcome in the war against Muammar Gadhafi.

E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post thinks he does, and snipes at those who are less enthusiastic: “It’s remarkable how reluctant Obama’s opponents are to acknowledge that despite all the predictions that his policy of limited engagement could never work, it actually did.”

Not so fast.  Assuming Gadhafi actually goes down, Obama’s policy may have “worked” in the narrow sense of deposing the tyrant — although that was not our stated goal. (As George Will aptly said, “In Libya, mission creep began before the mission did,” and remember that Obama pledged to turn over leadership of the effort “in a matter of days, not weeks.”)  It remains to be seen whether America’s intervention will succeed in the category that should trump all others: advancing America’s interests.

Max Boot, not an Obama fan, finds the appropriate level of nuance:

With Muammar Qaddafi​’s downfall imminent, does Barack Obama​ stand vindicated? To a certain extent, yes. Obama showed courage in intervening to prevent Qaddafi from retaking Benghazi and slaughtering its inhabitants. If he had not acted, it is doubtful Britain and France would have done so, and Qaddafi would have been in power for years to come. …

[However] …

[N]ews accounts from Tripoli describe a state of chaos and a power vacuum that could bode ill for Libya’s future. The immediate post-Qaddafi period will be an acid test of whether the administration and its allies did enough planning and preparation to avoid a prolonged insurgency of the kind that has plagued both Afghanistan and Iraq. …

[I]f the Libyans fail to get their act together, and their nation becomes a failed state, make no mistake: For all the talk about how Libyans must determine their own future, a share of the blame for a negative outcome will come to rest in Washington, London and Paris. Having provided the support that enabled the rebels to prevail, the NATO powers, and the U.S. most of all, can hardly wash its hands of the country. The wisdom of Obama’s decision to intervene still rests in the balance.

Just so.  There’s plenty to criticize in Obama’s intervention in Libya — starting with the fact that he sought permission from the UN and from the despots of the Arab League, but not from the U.S. Congress.  (President Bush, on the other hand, launched the war in Iraq with broad bipartisan support in Congress.)  However, now that our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president has entered a third war, I’m certainly rooting for a positive outcome.  As Victor Davis Hanson said, “the only thing worse than starting a stupid war is losing it.”

I continue to be astonished that Obama entered this war in the first place.  And while “stupid war” may be a bit harsh, I think on balance we should not have gotten involved.  As I wrote in March:

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.

The hope for the timeline now has slipped still further, to “months, not years” — but I’m at least slightly more optimistic about the eventual outcome.

Gaddafi-Assad

Pick your poison

Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has been stepping up the violence in response to waves of protest  across the country.   As the Washington Post stated in an editorial:

According to Syrian human rights groups, more than 220 people had been killed by Friday. And Friday may have been the worst day yet: According to Western news organizations, which mostly have had to gather information from outside the country, at least 75 people were gunned down in places that included the suburbs of Damascus, the city of Homs and a village near the southern town of Daraa, where the protests began.

The Post editorial is titled “Shameful U.S. Inaction on Syria’s Massacres,” which made me think the Post was advocating armed intervention in that country — which would be War Number Four.  But no, the Post has a more nuanced response in mind: it thinks the Obama Administration should recall its ambassador to Damascus.  That’ll fix ‘em!

For what it’s worth, I agree that we should recall our ambassador.  I just don’t think we should pretend that would constitute “taking action.”

The oddest thing about the Post editorial is that its 591 words do not include the word “Libya.”  But of course, Obama’s rush to war in Libya creates a context that complicates dealings with other  Muslim nations.

Even after a month to get used to the idea, I’m still astonished by the intervention in Libya.  It makes no sense, coming from a president who won his party’s nomination in part because he was the only contender who had opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning.  My basic take is that the intervention may or may not have been a bad idea — but now that we’re at war with Gadhafi, we damn well better beat him.

But how do we justify allowing Assad to kill his own people after taking up arms against Gadhafi for doing the same thing?  Syria — with its ties to Iran, its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and its recent history of shuttling terrorists into Iraq to kill Americans — is if anything a more odious and important enemy than Libya.

I’m conscious of the fact that this line of reasoning can circle around to bite me.  Asking “Why Libya but not Syria” begs the question, “why Iraq but not Libya?”  One answer is that in Iraq, the Bush Administration — like the Clinton Administration before it, and like every major intelligence agency in the Western world — believed that Saddam still had stockpiles of the chemical weapons he had used against his own people, believed that he was pursuing nuclear capabilities, and believed it was only a matter of time until he began providing terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.

But I think the better answer to “why Iraq but not Libya” is, “not Libya, because of Iraq.”  I’ve never wavered in my support for the war in Iraq, but I’m also not blind to the lives, dollars and opportunities that war has cost.  A war-weary America, with its military and its finances stretched thin, should think long and hard about starting additional wars of choice.

 

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.

Libya, Where the French Lead the Way

French air power

French air power

It’s like I’ve emerged from a coma into a parallel universe, where the United Nations takes a leadership role in a crisis, and the French — the French!back up their stern words with military action.

Where was this United Nations in 2003, when the time came to enforce 17 stern resolutions against an even badder bad guy?

A week ago, I wrote “the chance that this Administration will intervene militarily is close to zero.”  It didn’t even occur to me to lay odds on the likelihood of action by the UN and the French.  I guess I’m going to have to stop snarking about the “Freedom doors” that divide my church’s parish hall.

In that prior post, I quoted an Eliot Cohen op-ed that said “the lesson of decades is that NATO and the United Nations find it impossible to act without American leadership.” Are we going to have to learn a new lesson?

I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here — as I’m writing this, the entire French offensive apparently consists of one missile strike on a tank.  And I’m not ready to concede that Obama has ushered in a new era of international solidarity.  But I also think that in the face of this, Obama opponents need to be careful about sneering at the administration for a lack of leadership.  As Max Boot wrote at Contentions, the Commentary magazine blog:

I have been critical in recent days of President Obama for lack of leadership on Libya but I part company with some of my colleagues on this blog in that I sense this is changing. True, he waited for the UN Security Council to come together before acting in Libya, thereby losing vital time. But the legitimacy the UN confers should not be underestimated—much as it may pain me (and other critics of the UN) to admit it. Having the Arab League on board is also a plus. There is even talk that Qatar, UAE, and Jordan may participate in a military campaign against Qaddafi—good news if true, although, as autocracies (if relatively benign ones), they are hardly shining exemplars of the “new Middle East.” Most important of all, France and Britain appear prepared to take on a major part of the military burden.

All in all, I give Obama credit for assembling an impressive coalition, and avoiding a Russian or Chinese veto at the Security Council. The question is what he does with the authority of Resolution 1973.

“He” — Obama — may or may not do anything.  But the French have stepped up, and given the reality of a war-weary America, that seems like a very positive development.

Update: Just a few hours later, it seems like the U.S. is back in the driver’s seat, although the game plan seems to be to put the French and British in charge once the Tomahawking is done.  Meanwhile, I wish I had come up with this brilliant headline: “Nobel Peace Prize Winner Enters Third War” (via Instapundit).

No Easy Choices in Libya

Gaddafi

Evil

I haven’t written much about Libya because I haven’t been sure how I felt about it.  I have no doubt that Libya and the world will be better off without Muammar Gaddafi in power, and I was glad to hear the Obama Administration say forthrightly that the man should go.  (But where was that resolve during the thwarted Iranian revolution in 2009?)

I’m sympathetic to the idea of a no-fly zone in Libya, to reduce the regime’s firepower in suppressing the uprising.  But while Obama has escalated in Afghanistan and declined to follow through on his campaign promise to surrender in Iraq, it’s hard to imagine this administration starting a brand new war.  And enforcing a no-fly zone is an act of war, regardless of whether it begins with the bombing of air defenses.

Even if we had a more hawkish President, there are meritorious arguments against establishing a no-fly zone.  It might not be enough to bring down the regime — and then where are we?  Do we consider sending in ground troops? Other than regime change, under what circumstances could we honorably discontinue the no-fly zone? Do we keep enforcing it for a decade or more, as in Iraq in the 1990s?

In the Wall Street Journal this weekend, former State Department official Eliot Cohen makes a strong case that the Obama administration has mishandled the crisis.  An excerpt:

Instead of seizing the opportunity, the administration made cumulative mistakes. It was slow in insisting that Gadhafi had to go—but is now committed to that end, exposing itself to humiliation if he does not. It allowed the Pentagon to publicly disparage military measures, reassuring Gadhafi and dispiriting the rebels, when a discreet and menacing silence would have done far less harm. It called for an international effort when the lesson of decades is that NATO and the United Nations find it impossible to act without American leadership. And when the French government showed strategic initiative and pluck, it undercut a major ally.

The moment has passed. The only question now is whether Gadhafi goes slowly, over months, or not at all. Senior American intelligence officials inconveniently observed the other day in front of Congress that the latter seems the likely outcome. What will happen if they are right?

Good question.  This blog is dedicated to the premise that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing,” and on that basis my natural inclination is to intervene in Libya. But while America is by far the most powerful country in the world, it is not omnipotent, and does not have infinite military and economic resources.  We should stand against evil, but we can’t prevent every evil.

In the end it’s an academic debate — the chance that this Administration will intervene militarily is close to zero. (Oops!)

Update: Ross Douthat offers another conservative cautionary note on Libya:

If we did supply the rebels, who exactly would be receiving our money and munitions? Libya’s internal politics are opaque, to put it mildly. But here’s one disquieting data point, courtesy of the Center for a New American Security’s : Eastern Libya, the locus of the rebellion, sent more foreign fighters per capita to join the Iraqi insurgency than any other region in the Arab world.

And if the civil war dragged on, what then? Twice in the last two decades, in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, the United States has helped impose a no-flight zone. In both cases, it was just a stepping-stone to further escalation: bombing campaigns, invasion, occupation and nation-building.

None of this means that an intervention is never the wisest course of action. But the strategic logic needs to be compelling, the threat to our national interest obvious, the case for war airtight.

With Libya, that case has not yet been made.

US troops in Afghanistan (AFP/Getty)

US troops in Afghanistan (AFP/Getty)

I may have been too quick to sneer yesterday at President Obama’s appearance in Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.

The prize itself is still ridiculous, of course.  (And don’t get me started on the statue.)  But in addition to the obvious point that the honor is unearned, the president has faced critics from his left who believe the recent escalation of Mr. Obama’s War is inconsistent with the prize.

Seeking to answer those critics, Obama used his acceptance speech to issue a ringing declaration of American exceptionalism (although he would not use that term).

In the last 24 hours, I’ve watched one conservative after another find things to praise in the speech.  Neo-neocon (not an Obama fan) called it “the most robust defense of American military action I’ve ever heard him give,” and quoted this passage (my emphasis):

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…

But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.

In a post in The Corner titled “Obama the Neocon,” Michael Ledeen said:

It’s “only a speech,” to be sure.  And there things I wish he hadn’t said, or said differently.  But it’s a very different sort of speech, and it contained many words that are downright neoconnish:

America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal. We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung Sang Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran. It is telling that the leaders of these governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation. And it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear that these movements — these movements of hope and history — they have us on their side.

It sure sounds like President Obama just endorsed the Green Movement in Iran.

In a roundup titled “Conservative Praise for Obama Speech,” Politico notes the endorsement of former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich:

It’s already being called the “Obama Doctrine” – a notion that foreign policy is a struggle of good and evil, that American exceptionalism has blunted the force of tyranny in the world, and that U.S. military can be a force for good and even harnessed to humanitarian ends.

“I think having a liberal president who goes to Oslo on behalf of a peace prize and reminds the committee that they would not be free, they wouldn’t be able to have a peace prize, without having [the ability to use] force,” Gingrich said. “I thought in some ways it’s a very historic speech.”

The conservative other conservatives love to hate, Kathleen Parker, wrote in the Washington Post:

The speech was a signal moment in the evolution and maturation of Obama from ambivalent aspirant to reluctant leader.

Rising to the occasion, he managed to redeem himself at a low point in his popularity by reminding Americans of what is best about themselves.

At Contentions, Jennifer Rubin (really not an Obama fan):

But this speech is perhaps the closest he has come to throwing the American antiwar Left under the bus. America will defend itself. There is evil in the world. And yes, we are at war with religious fanatics:

Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war.

For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint – no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith – for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

It is not at all what the netroot crowd that lifted him to the presidency had in mind. It seems that reality may be dawning, however dimly, on the White House.

I could go on and on. (I guess I already have.)  I expect in the future I will continue to have more criticism than praise for Mr. Obama. But while I am always proud to be an American, today I am proud of my President.

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