The Left is terribly embarrassed about the U.S. intervention in Libya. We have preemptively attacked an Arab Muslim nation that posed little threat to the national-security interests of the United States. President Obama did not have majority support among the American people. Nor did he even attempt to gain approval from Congress — especially egregious because he seems to be the first president since Harry Truman who sought and obtained sanction for military action from the United Nations without gaining formal authorization from his own Congress.
The administration offered no rationale for judging, on humanitarian grounds, that Qaddafi was more egregiously murderous than, say, the killers in the Congo or Ivory Coast. Nor, in terms of national security, did the relatively sparsely populated and isolated Libya pose a threat comparable to those posed by either Iran or Syria — concerning which we carefully steered clear when similar domestic unrest threatened both regimes.
Stranger still, the Qaddafi regime of over four decades’ duration had since 2003 courted Western nations, after promising to give up its sizable WMD arsenal in the light of Saddam Hussein’s fate. The Western response, if sometimes cynical and oil-driven, nevertheless was increasingly institutionalized, at least if we can gauge by the number of Western intellectuals who wrote encomia on behalf of Qaddafi, and by the institutions that, perhaps in return for sizable donations, gave degrees to his Westernized son and sponsored exhibitions of his artwork. The nadir of the Western outreach effort was the British release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, in apparent exchange for future oil concessions and intelligence cooperation.
Why, then, did we begin bombing? Apparently, the Obama administration had been stung by criticism of its confused reactions to the protests against the two pro-American authoritarian regimes that quite abruptly crashed in Egypt and Tunisia. After days of calibrating the chances of success of the Libyan rebellion — and weighing the growing criticism of such tardy opportunism — it jumped in, convinced that in a matter of days Tripoli would be the third autocratic Arab regime to fall — now all the better with an eleventh-hour helpful push from high-profile American bombers and cruise missiles. Our landmark adventure in Libya would subordinate U.S. military power to international humanitarian concerns as adjudicated by the U.N. and the Arab League, prevent the embarrassment of being shown up by the interventionist French and British, and prove a cakewalk, given that Qaddafi was isolated, on the verge of being overthrown, and ruling over a weak country of less than seven million. So the Nobel Peace laureate Obama gave the go-ahead, on the prompting of Samantha Power, Hillary Clinton, and Susan Rice, turned to the NCAA basketball tournament, golf, and vacationing in Rio — and outsourced the messy details to a reluctant Pentagon.
The Left, as I said, was humiliated, since its former criticism of Iraq had lived on the principle that George Bush had precipitously taken us to war against a Middle East oil-producing nation and now died with the principle that Barack Obama far more precipitously took us to war against a Middle East oil-producing nation. Worse still, Libya occurred amid a series of Obama flip-flops that cemented the notion of a partisan rather than principled Left: as vociferous in its criticism of President Bush’s Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, Predators, Patriot Act, intercepts, wiretaps, Iraq presence, and preventive detention as it was abruptly silent once President Obama embraced, or indeed trumped, all these policies and protocols.
Now, in exasperation, many on the left have suggested that they are no more hypocritical than those on the right, who supported the removal of the dictator Saddam Hussein, but now oppose bombing the dictator Qaddafi, supposedly because a liberal Obama, not a conservative Bush, is commander-in-chief. But here are some reasons why Iraq in 2003 made sense, and Libya in 2011 makes no sense.
1. There was no ambiguity about our mission in Iraq: remove Saddam, and stay on to foster a consensual government. In Libya we have no mission, since we want Qaddafi gone in theory, but apparently can neither synchronize that aim with international sanctions nor pursue it openly by military means.