On the NRO Libya Editorial, I Respectfully Dissent

by Andrew C. McCarthy

I respectfully dissent from Wendesday’s NRO editorial, which urges that the United States go to war with Libya.

The editorial doesn’t put it that way. Indeed, it doesn’t call for President Obama to seek a congressional declaration of war, or at least an authorization for the use of military force, as the Bush administration understood was required before commencing combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In this case, complying with the Constitution is almost certain to result in a resounding “no” vote from the people’s representatives — and if you think getting the Patriot Act reauthorized was uphill, figure getting Congress to bless another adventure in Islamic nation-building as Olympus … squared. So apparently ensuring that the American people support a war against Libya is a step is to be dispensed with. The editors instead claim that “the request by the rebels and the Arab League [is] all the authorization we need,” a proposition that I imagine would have come as something of a surprise to Madison, Jefferson, et al.

In any event, they would have President Obama, post haste, launch our tapped-out nation into an open-ended military intervention, one that is to start with not only the “no-fly zone” that the editors recently opposed but a “no-drive zone” to protect the “rebels” in their tottering eastern stronghold of Benghazi. That sure sounds like a full-blown U.S. invasion of Libya, although the editors are less than clear about exactly whose boots would be hitting the ground. They assure us that they seek only a “meaningful” U.S. military commitment, not an “overwhelming” one “comparable” to the Islamic nation-building misadventures in the fledgling sharia states of Iraq and Afghanistan. But of course, no one was talking about occupying Muslim countries for a decade or more when those projects started.

It seems like a long time ago, but it is worth reminding ourselves that the only missions the American people supported involved destroying the terror network that attacked our nation on 9/11 and toppling its state sponsors. Unlike anything at stake in Libya, those are vital U.S. security interests. Iraq and Afghanistan became overwhelming commitments because of the conventional unwisdom that our security somehow hinges not only on defeating our enemies but on converting Muslim basket-cases into something resembling democracy. And this, despite the absence of any Islamic democratic tradition; despite the tension between sharia and the Western principles that undergird our notion of democracy; and despite the dearth of evidence supporting the theory — and it is only a theory — that Country A’s being a democracy makes Country B safer from trans-continental terror networks skilled at exploiting democratic freedoms. (In point of fact, the evidence cuts in the other direction — unless you think places like Hamburg, Madrid, San Diego, and Westport, four of the many Western cities and towns where 9/11 was planned, are not democracies.)

The editors do not explain why dictates of the “freedom agenda” would not turn Libya into another exercise in nation-building. The plan is to leap in first (to “check Qaddafi’s offensive”) and “then we can consider other options.” But the three trial balloons they fly for a purportedly limited engagement (though they do not actually restrict themselves to a limited engagement) are utterly unrealistic: (a) if it’s important enough to intervene on behalf of the “rebels,” it’s unserious to suggest that we would go no further than shoring up their enclave “so they can fight another day”; (b) “decapitation strikes against the regime in Tripoli” would produce exactly the sort of chaos that became the justification for entangling ourselves in Iraq (can anyone forget Colin Powell’s bromide, “You break it, you own it”?); and (c) as Daniel Freedman points out in the WSJ-Europe, we and the “international community” have no credibility to, as the editors put it, “bargain Qaddafi out of the country,” having relentlessly undermined the deal by which Nigeria induced Liberian dictator Charles Taylor to step down in 2003. As Mr. Freedman recounts, the Bush administration joined Europe’s preening over the “need to bring Charles Taylor to justice.” Qaddafi, naturally, took notice of what he called this “serious precedent” — a precedent that now has convinced him to fight until “the last drop of blood is spilled.” (Call Qaddafi crazy, but he often seems to understand how the world works better than our “progressive” diplomats do.)

#more#So what is the rationale for enmeshing our armed forces and sparse resources in Libya for the benefit of the “rebels” — the nebulous term used to avoid the inconvenient fact that Qaddafi’s main opposition includes virulently anti-American Islamists (whom the editors gently refer to as “bad actors”)? The editors assert, “Qaddafi is a murderer of Americans with whom we still have a score to settle.” They also deride him as a dictator who “hatch[es] assassination plots against foreign leaders and ravage[es] Libyan society.”

Funny thing about that: Throughout the Bush years, Qaddafi remained a murderer of Americans with whom we still had a score to settle (viz., the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people, including 189 Americans, in 1988). The assassination attempt to which the editors refer happened in 2003, when Qaddafi plotted with al-Qaeda financier Abdurrahman Alamoudi — formerly the favorite “moderate” Muslim leader of the Bush and Clinton administrations, now a convicted terrorist — to kill then–crown prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. It must, in addition, be recalled that Qaddafi never stopped ravaging Libyan society while George W. Bush was president, a fact Michael Rubin documented time and again here at NRO (see, e.g., here). Notwithstanding all of this, the Bush administration, anxious to show a positive development amid the deteriorating situation in Iraq, decided in its wisdom to give Qaddafi a clean bill of health in exchange for his commitment to forswear the development and proliferation of WMD. (A commitment from Qaddafi — what could go wrong?)

Wouldn’t it have been sufficient exchange for the U.S. to agree that we wouldn’t depose Qaddafi as we had just deposed Saddam? Of course it would have … but then that wouldn’t have flaunted the full glory of the freedom agenda, right? So instead Qaddafi — a terrorist who never changed a whit — was suddenly portrayed as a reformer and a strong U.S. ally in the war against terror. The Bush administration removed him from the list of terror sponsors, opened the foreign-aid spigot for him, and cultivated ties between his regime and U.S. industry — all to the deep dismay of the same opposition we are now told it is essential that we help. Even more infuriating, President Bush, at the apparent urging of Secretary Rice, agreed to satisfy Qaddafi’s damage claims arising out of the Reagan administration’s righteous missile-attack on Tripoli in retaliation for the despot’s terrorist bombing that killed American troops in Germany.

That seems like some pretty outrageous coddling of a murderer of Americans with whom we still have a score to settle. So I searched the NR archives to find an editorial in which we condemned any of this appeasement, called for Qaddafi’s ouster, demanded that the terrorist be made to answer for Flight 103, or at least protested Secretary Rice’s treacly sit-down with this anti-American monster. Unless I’m missing something, there is no such editorial. To be clear, I am not saying NR ever bought the Bush administration’s Qaddafi makeover or regarded the dictator as anything other than the thug that he is. My point is that, although Qaddafi is still the same guy he has always been, we did not make much of a peep over the Bush approach, yet now we want to go to war with the guy under circumstances where there has been no intervening Libyan attack on the U.S., or even a threat against the U.S.

(To be sure, as I have noted before, there were plenty of Libyans who transited Syria to join the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq. But we didn’t consider that kind of misbehavior a casus belli even against Iran, the maestro that was actually orchestrating much of the insurgency. Furthermore, the Libyans who joined it were at least as likely to be part of what the editors now call the “rebels” as they were to be Qaddafi loyalists.)

Apparently, the editors now want to get tough on Qaddafi not because it is easier for conservatives to push Obama than it was for them to buck Bush, but because there is now a real chance to oust Qaddafi. In favor of what? It is here that the editorial is at its weakest, resisting any admission that its proposed military intervention would, in all probability, just exchange one anti-American dictator with a new set of anti-American rulers. Claiming to have “no illusions” about the “rebels,” the editorial allows that they have their “share of bad actors.” But the editors refrain from actually describing who those bad actors are.

There is a reason why, besides “freedom agenda” enthusiasts, no one wants Qaddafi “hanging from a lamp post” (as the editors put it) more than Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s sharia guide. He has just issued a fatwa calling for Qaddafi’s murder. The Brotherhood, once again, is all over this. As I summarized in a column last week:

As in Egypt, the main opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood — avowed enemies of the West whose goal is the establishment of sharia states. The National Front for the Salvation of Libya is also a largely Islamist opposition group — one that was stronger until many of its Islamist members split off because they objected to the group’s acceptance of U.S. support in the 1980s. There are other Islamist and leftist groups, including violent jihadists. Moreover, Libya is virulently anti-Israeli, and a disturbing anti-Semitism courses through the opposition. (See this Pajamas report, as well as this post by Andrew Bostom on the history of anti-Semitism in Libya.) Whatever regime comes after Qaddafi is likely to be anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Israeli.

The editors slough this off with the contention that it really doesn’t matter in light of the “standard” they’d apply, which they say, “shouldn’t be particularly high,” to wit:  “Are [the ‘rebels’] better or worse than Qaddafi?” They then suggest that this is a slam-dunk, since “it will be hard to do worse, unless [the ‘rebels’] take over and immediately begin hatching assassination plots against foreign leaders and ravaging Libyan society.” This piles naivete atop absurdity.

First for the absurdity: The “standard” the editors suggests does not address the issue at hand. The question is not whether Qaddafi’s successors would be better than Qaddafi such that we should hope they succeed or even provide them the sort of moral support the Reagan administration gave to Poland’s Solidarity movement. The question is whether there are such clear and vital American national security interests riding on the supplanting of Qaddafi by these particular Islamist would-be successors that we should commit American military forces, i.e., invade another Muslim country that has not attacked us, in order to bring that outcome about. Even if we were to concede for argument’s sake that the rebels would be less anti-American than Qaddafi, that would argue for nothing more than wishing them good luck; it would not call for the sacrifice of American blood and treasure (or, more accurately, American blood and going deeper in hock to China).

And then the naivete: Is it really so obvious that the “rebels” would be better for us than Qaddafi? News flash: The Muslim Brotherhood has a history of not just plotting but actually carrying out the assassination of foreign leaders. Indeed, while we are not happy that Qaddafi is a foreign leader, he does happen to be one, and, as already noted, the Brotherhood’s top clerical leader is openly calling for him to be killed. If we just have a look at Gaza, Sudan, Somalia, and Iran, where Islamist governments reign (the one in Gaza is actually run by the Muslim Brotherhood), it’s fair to say that “ravage” is too gentle a word for what they do to their societies. Look at how Turkey is devolving after eight years of Islamist rule. Clearly, it wasn’t so obvious to the Bush administration that the available alternatives were manifestly preferable to Qaddafi. I don’t know why the editors are so confident on this point.

I repeat, the editors may well be right that a Libyan regime run by the “rebels” could end up being better for us than Qaddafi — at least marginally. But it also might be worse — Qaddafi hasn’t attacked us in many years; the Muslim Brotherhood is actively seeking to destroy the West. In either event, the issue is not what we ought to be hoping for or even working toward diplomatically. It is whether hastening the post-Qaddafi era is so clearly in our interests that it’s worth going to war over.

Besides attacking Libya directly, the editors further suggest that we should “work with our allies to provide logistics, training, and arms” to these “rebels.” Before we do something like that, should we not at least discuss how disastrous have been our efforts to train and arm Muslim forces in the recent past? Indeed, perhaps I should say the very recent past: Though I cannot vouch for them, reports are now circulating (see, e.g., here) that two members of the U.S.-funded and trained Palestinian security forces have been arrested on suspicion of providing logistical support for the massacre of a Jewish family in the West Bank town of Itamar last weekend (the massacre is the subject of my last column).

Besides arming the Palestinian Authority, which continues to maintain its own terrorist wing, our government has been funding Qaddafi (including “charities” run by his family) and the Pakistani regime that created the Taliban. We seeded the Afghan mujahideen with hundreds of millions of dollars that ended up going to al-Qaeda and jihadist warlords like Hekmatyar who are still at war with us. We intentionally looked the other way while Iran armed and trained the Bosnian Muslims, giving the jihad a foothold in Europe. The Egyptian military to which we have given tens of billions over the last 30 years could soon be coopted by an Islamist regime. Do we really want to keep arming and funding shady players in a place about which we know little except that there is teeming animosity for America and the West?

The editors also offer the now familiar argument that we need to act because President Obama has staked American credibility on Qaddafi’s ouster. “All lies in jest,” the tune goes, “still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Obama says a lot of things, many of them contradictory. (Mubarak must stay, Mubarak must be gone yesterday, Qaddafi is our friend, the violence must stop but no need to mention Qaddafi, Qaddafi is suddenly illegitimate, and so on. If Mr. Obama can pry himself away from his brackets, who knows what we’ll be hearing tomorrow?) The president refused to intervene in the Iranian uprising because he had committed us to diplomacy with the mullahs — should we support that feckless strategy since, whatever misgivings we may have, Obama has staked U.S. credibility on it? I don’t understand how it is that we can disagree with most everything Obama says but, when he occasionally takes a position — however fleetingly — that we find pleasing, we abruptly decide he must be defended because American credibility is now on the line.

As long as we’re talking about American credibility, what about Bush’s staking of it on the conclusion that Qaddafi was no longer an anti-American terrorist but, instead, an American ally in the war on terror whose regime should no longer be listed as a terrorism sponsor? The editors insist that Qaddafi is “a dictator with American blood on his hands,” and that we thus “still have a score to settle” with him. But didn’t President Bush pronounce that score settled in a diplomatic agreement in which American and, yes, Libyan claims were paid and deemed satisfied. You don’t like that result? Me neither … and, I said so at the time. But by the editors’ logic, wasn’t Bush’s agreement a staking of American credibility on both a settlement of Pan Am 103 claims and the re-entry of Libya into the “international community” — notwithstanding his record of terrorism and dictatorship? How is it that if Obama doesn’t act, U.S. credibility will be in tatters, but that U.S. credibility is not already in tatters because of our treatment of Qaddafi from 2003–2011? Won’t U.S. credibility be in tatters if our rationale for launching combat operations against Qaddafi is a terrorist attack that our last president determined was a closed chapter?

Contrary to the editors’ claim, a military campaign to pick a winner between Qaddafi (for whom we were vouching for up until a few weeks ago) and the “rebels” (who include anti-American jihadists) would not be “commensurate with our interests.” It could not be, for such campaigns, as the editorial concedes, have “costs and risks.” Our interests are calculated by weighing those costs and risks against the anticipated benefits. To justify the use of military force, the benefits have to be clear and substantial, and their pursuit must be supported by the public. The fate of Libya is just not that important. Qaddafi is a creep, but he hasn’t done anything to us since our government absolved him seven years ago. If he falls, no one will weep. But that doesn’t make it worth a single American life to move him out so the “rebels” can move in.

Arab League members have been lushly armed by the U.S. for years. Why don’t we suggest that they band together to drive Qaddafi out, just like they have banded together several times to try to wipe out Israel? Why don’t we let our great NATO ally Turkey take a time-out from trying to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas to deal with its own backyard?

To borrow General McChrystal’s words about Afghanistan, Libya is not our war. The editors observe that “waiting for U.N. or even NATO approval is a formula for inaction,” but there are very good reasons for inaction. Putting aside Security Council authoritarians like China and Russia, who have their own reasons for protecting Qaddafi, many other countries see the potentially catastrophic downsides of getting involved and say, “No thanks.” Why do we need to be the ones to take on the empirically thankless task of stepping in between warring Muslims who are united only by their disdain for America and the West? 

It is not easy to explain to our troops and their loved ones why the combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have devolved into increasingly pointless nation-building exercises, continue to be worth their sacrifice. But at least in those missions, there were clear U.S. national security reasons for the initial invasions. At least in those missions, we are still killing and capturing some terrorists who might otherwise attack the U.S. In Libya, there are no similar U.S. interests. Yet NR is not only undertaking to support a forcible intervention; the editors lay the groundwork for supporting “other options” to be considered once Qaddafi’s offensive has been checked. Intended of not, that leaves the door ajar to yet another long-term, troop-intensive occupation, the editors’ protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. And is it not worth at least a mention that among the “costs and risks” of military intervention in a Muslim country is that, regardless of how well-meaning we are, mainstream Islam construes sharia to require attacks against Western forces that attack Muslim countries? By intervening — even if some Muslim countries are asking us to intervene, history tells us — we would guarantee intensified calls by influential Islamic clerics for jihad against us.

Finally, what about the cost? We are, after all, engulfed by debt — increasing trillions of it that are appropriately the subject of ever more agitation on the pages of NR and NRO.  Although the editorial purports to explain why military intervention is “commensurate” with our interests, it omits from this calculation any mention of how much this “meaningful” intervention will cost our bankrupt country. Perhaps more importantly in our current dire straits, the editors do not grapple with how easily a costly intervention will be exploited by the Left to justify the preservation of wasteful Big Government spending that we also can’t afford.

I appreciate that it is hard to say, “Butt out.” Qaddafi is a monster and his opposition is murky enough (for now) to be portrayed as “rebels” and “freedom fighters.” But I fear we’re being swept away by emotion and by what we should now know is the vain hope that making sacrifices for besieged Muslims is going to make the ummah like us better. It is essential to attack Islamic terrorists who plot against America, but our humanitarian military efforts in the Islamic world have been a disaster — at staggering costs in lives and hundreds of billions of dollars that we don’t have. We should be working on how to get the nation disentangled from Islamic countries, not leading the nation headlong into another conflict that we cannot win. With great respect, I believe the editorial is profoundly mistaken. 

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