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.
2. In Iraq, we were taking the lead in setting up a consensual government; in Libya to this day we have no idea who the rebels are, except that a few spoke good English in their impassioned interviews on CNN.
3. Qaddafi had viciously killed perhaps a few thousand rebels to prompt our humanitarian outrage; Saddam had killed perhaps a million at home and abroad before we intervened. Perhaps we were properly anticipatory with Qaddafi and unduly reactive with Saddam — but nevertheless, Qaddafi’s record of genocides simply was not comparable to Saddam’s.
4. The Bush administration made it clear, despite a growing insurgency and Democratic criticism, that it would not leave Iraq in defeat, but was intent on finishing the mission by removing Saddam’s Baath party from power, stabilizing the country, and ensuring an elected government. In Libya, the Obama administration intervened and then in less than two weeks abruptly quit military operations, outsourcing them to Britain and France. The administration apparently was not worried that Qaddafi is still in power and killing his opponents — to prevent which we intervened in the first place. Success in Iraq sent a signal; so did quitting in Libya. Now we can anticipate an endless cycle of horse-trading with a resilient Qaddafi, much as Saddam once made a mockery of U.N. resolutions.
5. When we went into Iraq, Saddam was in a virtual war with the United States, which was enforcing a twelve-year-long no-fly zone after the full-fledged 1991 Gulf War, and he was still sponsoring terrorism in the post-9/11 climate. Qaddafi was a similar nefarious dictator but, unlike Saddam, the subject of intense and ongoing Western outreach. And there had been no direct American hostilities against him in over 20 years.
6. Libya is a tiny country of less than 7 million people, of far less geostrategic interest to the United States than Iraq. Iraq, a country of 26 million, was central to the stability of the Gulf region, from which 40 percent of the world’s oil was shipped. While Saddam Hussein’s desire, past and present, to sponsor terrorism was arguably matched by Qaddafi’s prior to 2003, his ability to do so, given his more ample resources, larger population, and central location, was far greater.
7. Bush was careful to obtain authorization (on 23 grounds) from both houses of Congress in October 2002, more than five months before he went in. Yet Obama has still not even attempted anything similar.
8. Bush attempted to go to the U.N. and was rebuffed, and then fell back to the (dubious) position that he was at least enforcing U.N. resolutions. Obama indeed got U.N. and Arab League approval for a no-fly zone and for unspecified action to help the rebels, but then de facto exceeded it by bombing ground targets and apparently inserting operatives among the rebels to coordinate air assaults — far in excess of the U.N.’s notion of no-fly zones or efforts to prevent a humanitarian disaster. The U.S. was immediately put in a box of bragging about having obtained international sanctions, and then discovering that it could not remove Qaddafi without violating the spirit and letter of just those international authorizations.
9. When we went into Iraq, we were already involved in one war, in Afghanistan, but a war that at that point had cost less than 100 American lives in over 18 months of fighting. The United States’ annual deficit was less than $400 billion. When we went into Libya we had nearly 150,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the government, facing an imminent shutdown, was running a $1.6 trillion deficit — four times as large in dollars as in 2003, and almost three times in terms of GDP.
10. When Islamists inevitably tried to hijack the U.S. removal of Saddam, we moved to prevent that; in Libya, if and when the removal of Qaddafi happens, we have no ability to govern events and are far more likely to foster than to prevent Islamic radicalism.
11. In Iraq, we were faulted for being unilateral despite having far more allies than we do at present in Libya, when we are praised for being multilateral.
12. Stabilizing Afghanistan proved far more difficult than the brilliant six-week removal of the Taliban, stabilizing Iraq far more difficult than the brilliant three-week removal of Saddam. Such lessons teach us that Libya would probably follow the same course, or conceivably worse, given that we have not yet brilliantly removed Qaddafi. The United States might be able to stabilize two post-war constitutional governments, but probably not three — and the third attempt could very well endanger the earlier two.
To be fair, in Obama’s defense, it perhaps soon may be said that we suffered greatly in victory in Iraq and, by comparison, far less in defeat in Libya.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.