As is their habit, President Obama and his post-speech spinners have framed his supposed achievements in Libya at the expense of his predecessors. As is also their habit, they have played with the truth.
Yes, Bill Clinton dithered in the Balkans and obtained neither congressional nor U.N. approval before beginning to bomb Milosevic. But Clinton was seeking to bomb a European Christian capital on behalf of Muslim victims, which was a hard sell to many Europeans and an impossible one to Russia on the Security Council. I suggest that, should the Balkans heat up and we again see ethnic cleansing of the late 1990s sort, the laureate Obama will be even less successful than was Clinton in galvanizing the Europeans to take action and persuading Russia not to veto a U.N. resolution. Clinton and Holbrooke also made it clear that they wanted Milosevic out — and accomplished that clear goal in 11 weeks following military operations, with a much larger coalition than the present one.
As for Iraq, the spin has involved disturbing distortions well aside from the administration’s serial contradictions on that war (at various times, Obama has wanted all troops out by March 2008, declared the surge a failure, suggested “There’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage,” etc.). Bush, unlike Obama, went to both houses of Congress for authorization to use military force to remove Saddam (obtaining 23 resolutions way beyond fears of WMD), and he tried to go to the U.N. over a year-long period of negotiations. He had more allies in his coalition than Obama has now, both in numbers and in size of military assets, and had a clear vision of what the mission was (e.g., remove Saddam and foster a constitutional government to avoid the reappearance of a Saddam-like tyrant). Going into the heart of the ancient caliphate, between theocratic Iran and Saudi Arabia and with neighbors such as Syria, to take out someone who had fought one war with the U.S., survived 12 years of a no-fly zone, attacked four surrounding countries, and long presided over vast oil wealth and 26 million people, is a somewhat more difficult task than following the British and French into a Mediterranean country of 6.5 million people.
One can argue over the wisdom of American involvement in both the Balkans and Iraq, but to suggest that our Libyan endeavor presents anywhere near the military, logistical, diplomatic, or political challenges of those two involvements is ludicrous.
Instead of critiquing past interventions in this ahistorical and self-serving fashion, the president needs to state clearly: What is the mission, what methods will be used to complete it, and what end result do we desire to accrue from it? Despite a belated address to the nation, we still have no idea whether we are or are not after Qaddafi. We both brag of taking out ground assets and seem to promise that we won’t do it again. We boast of U.N. and Arab League resolutions, then, with a wink and nod, sometimes sorta-but-sorta-not go beyond their letter and spirit. We talk about congressional dialogue, but still have not presented a request to use force against Libya to either house of Congress. And, to my knowledge, we still haven’t figured out who the rebels are, and whether they are preferable to the Qaddafi monster in rehab, for whom (along with his petrodollars) Western universities, diplomats, intellectuals, and academics seemed recently to have developed a creepy affinity.
So, before we pass historical judgment on two past interventions (and, for all their tragedies, Iraq is now one of the few constitutional states in the region and the Balkans are still relatively quiet), let us first ensure that the Libya adventure works. It would be premature to claim, in mediis rebus, not only success, but success in ways that Obama’s predecessors might have envied.