Politics & Policy

War in Libya: Dumb and Dumber

The only thing worse than starting a stupid war is losing it.

Almost daily over the last four months we were told that Moammar Qaddafi was about ready to throw in the towel and give up.

Libya, after all, is not a distant Afghanistan or Iraq with a population of some 30 million. Yet this tiny police state of less than 7 million people, conveniently located on the Mediterranean Sea opposite nearby Europe, continues to thwart the three great powers of the NATO alliance and thousands of “Arab Spring” rebels.

In March, President Obama ordered the use of American bombers and cruise missiles to join with the French and British to finish off the tottering Qaddafi regime. Obama was apparently stung by liberal criticism that the U.S. had done little to help the rebels in their weeks-long effort to remove Qaddafi — after only belatedly supporting the successful revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt.

Four months ago, intervention seemed to the Obama administration to be a quick, painless way of ridding the world of a longstanding international menace while gaining praise for helping “democratic” reformers. Oil, of course, is always a subtext in any Middle Eastern war.

But almost immediately contradictions arose. Sometimes we ordered Qaddafi to leave; at other times we insisted we were only helping the rebels. Bombs seemed to be aimed at the Qaddafi family, even as we denied that such targeted killing was the goal — and were reminded that U.S. law forbids the assassination of foreign leaders.

The rebels were variously described as would-be democratic reformers, inept amateurs, hard-core Islamists, and mixtures of all three. Months later, no one seems to have the answer, though many of the insurgents share a deep-seated racial and religious hatred of Qaddafi’s African mercenaries. Who knows whether post-Qaddafi Libya will become an Islamic republic, a Somalia-like mess, another Arab dictatorship, or a Turkish-style democracy?

The more NATO forces destroyed Qaddafi’s tanks, artillery, planes, and boats, the more the unhinged dictator seemed to cling to power. Western leaders had forgotten that Qaddafi lost a war with Egypt in 1977, lost a war with Chad in 1987, and came out on the losing end of Ronald Reagan’s bombing campaign in 1986 — and yet clung to power and remains the planet’s longest-ruling dictator. Terror, oil, cash reserves, and a loyal mercenary army are a potent combination.

The Obama administration asked for legal authorization from the Arab League — the majority of whose member states are not democratic — and from the U.N., but to this day strangely has not requested authorization from Congress. As Obama sought legitimacy from international organizations, he failed to note that no U.N. or Arab League resolution actually had allowed him to conduct a full-scale air war against Qaddafi’s ruling clique. The Chinese and Russians are both happy to keep pointing that out.

Both conservatives and liberals were flabbergasted by the sudden preemptive war. Conservatives who supported the messy efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq were reluctant to champion a third one in Libya without congressional authority and with no clearly stated mission or methodology. When we entered an on-again/off-again cycle of operations, Republicans charged that a weakened, fiscally insolvent America was sort of “leading from behind.”

Liberals were appalled that the president, who, as a senator, had always praised the War Powers Act, was now ordering his legal team to find ingenious ways of bypassing it. If this was to be a multilateral, un-Bush war, why then did it split NATO apart? Roughly half the members declined to participate. Both Germany and Italy soon openly opposed the effort. And now the instigator, France, seems to want to bail out.

The Left had also decried Western attacks on oil-exporting Muslim countries, but now liberal-in-chief Barack Obama was engaging in just such an attack. Indeed, the anti-war president who had promised to end the Bush Mideast wars had suddenly expanded them into a third theater. The more the war dragged on, the more the Arab world was torn between hating Qaddafi and hating Obama’s bombs.

The odious Qaddafi has been an international pariah for most of his tenure — funding terrorists, killing Americans, and murdering dissidents. But even as the first bombs were dropped, he was a monster in the midst of rehab. In late 2010 his jet-setting family was being courted by Western intellectuals, reestablishing diplomatic relations with the United States, offering oil concessions to the West, and being praised as a partner in the war against radical Islamic terrorism.

Then, with a snap of the fingers, in early 2011 Qaddafi was suddenly reinvented as a Saddam Hussein–like ogre and dodging Western cruise missiles and bombs targeting his person.

What is next?

The general consensus, from both Left and Right, is that we should finish the misadventure as quickly as possible. Apparently, the only thing worse than starting a stupid, unnecessary war against a madman is losing it.

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.


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