President Obama has announced that America will stop attacking Col. Moammar Qaddafi’s forces in Libya. He instead hopes that others can force Qaddafi out — or that the dictator will leave because of economic and diplomatic pressure.
It will apparently be up to NATO to finish the war — without direct American combat participation. The relieved Obama administration had never quite explained what the mission was in the first place — or for whom and for what we were fighting. Was the bombing to stop the killing, to help the rebels, to remove Qaddafi, or to aid the British and French, who both have considerable oil interests in Libya?
Were we enforcing just a no-fly zone, establishing a sort-of-no-fly zone with occasional attacks on ground targets, or secretly sending in American operatives on the ground to work with rebels? Did the Obama administration go well beyond the Arab League and United Nations resolutions by trying to target Qaddafi for a while and ensure that the rebels won? If so, did anyone care? Was the administration ever going to ask for congressional approval — at a time when we are running a $1.6 trillion annual budget deficit and have about 150,000 troops committed in Afghanistan and Iraq? Was Libya a greater threat to our national security than Syria or Iran, or a greater humanitarian crisis than Congo or the Ivory Coast? Are our new allies, the rebels, Westernized reformers, Islamists, or both — or neither?
The abrupt abandonment of hostilities after about two weeks has set an American military precedent. True, the United States once lost a big war in Vietnam. It also decided not to finish a war with Islamic terrorists in 1983 after Hezbollah operatives blew up 241 U.S. military personnel in their Beirut barracks. In 1993, a few months after the “Black Hawk Down” mess in Mogadishu, President Clinton quietly withdrew American troops from Somalia.
In the past, the United States has also agreed to conditions short of full victory, as in the 1953 armistice with the North Koreans that has left the Korean peninsula divided to this day. Bill Clinton also ordered missile attacks in retaliation for terrorist attacks on Americans — in both Afghanistan and Sudan — without much follow-up. Yet in no prior military engagement against a nation-state has the United States simply announced that it was arbitrarily and unilaterally going to stop fighting after an initial two weeks of combat operations.
I would not count on the ready departure of Qaddafi or his family.
In 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat struck back at Libyan provocations and almost invaded the country. Egypt’s massive army could have smashed the Libyan military and easily removed Qaddafi, but Egypt was talked out of the war at the last minute by concerned Arab nations.
In 1986, Ronald Reagan ordered a strike against Tripoli aimed at Qaddafi himself — who may have been warned ahead of time of the impending attack and escaped. Reagan gave up on further missions against Qaddafi.
Qaddafi fought and lost a decade-long war against Chad from 1978 to 1987. Yet despite thousands of dead and wounded Libyans, the defeat did not endanger Qaddafi’s hold on power.
During his 42-year reign, Qaddafi has sent troops to help out the monstrous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, blown up passenger jets, supported Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkan wars, ordered assassinations abroad, masterminded terrorist plots — and always survived by using his vast petroleum fortunes to buy reprieves.
Unlike pro-Western strongmen in Tunisia and Egypt who simply left when protests mounted, Qaddafi is perfectly willing to kill thousands of his own people to retain power. After all, he is a totalitarian outlaw with nowhere to go. Usually, such monsters do not abdicate unless they are yanked out by American ground troops — as in Grenada, Iraq, and Panama — or bombed relentlessly for weeks on end, as in the case of the NATO campaign against Milosevic.
Sanctions and pariah status usually do not matter much to brutal dictators like Qaddafi — as the longevity of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, or Cuba’s Fidel Castro attests.
In our defense, we can say that Qaddafi’s removal was properly a European task. We can even agree that President Obama acted precipitously, without a clear-cut mission, strategy, or desired outcome — and without majority support of either Congress or the American people.
Yes, we can say all that. But if Qaddafi or his family survives in power after the United States simply got tired and quit, we will also be able to say that this sort of defeat is something quite new in American history.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.