The Corner

Iraq vs. Libya

Thomas Friedman recently offered a review of Obama’s foreign policy in which he made, if indirectly, the now common comparison of Libya and Iraq:

In Libya, Obama saved lives and gave Libyans a chance to build a decent society. What they do with this opportunity is now up to them. I am still wary, but Obama handled his role exceedingly well.

No doubt George Bush and Dick Cheney thought that both Iraq and Afghanistan would be precisely such focused, limited operations. Instead, they each turned out to be like a bad subprime mortgage — a small down payment with a huge balloon five years down the road. They thought they would be able to “flip” the house before the balloon came due. But partly because of their incompetence and lack of planning, it took much longer to flip the house to new owners and the price America paid was huge. Iraq may still have a decent outcome — I hope so, and it would be important — but even if it becomes Switzerland, we overpaid for it.

So let’s be clear: Up to now, as a commander in chief in the war on terrorism, Obama and his national security team have been so much smarter, tougher and cost-efficient in keeping the country safe than the “adults” they replaced. It isn’t even close, which is why the G.O.P.’s elders have such a hard time admitting it.

Friedman is quite right to note the mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq that cost American lives, while Libya cost not one, but that easy logic ignores a lot of reality:

1) We have no idea what North Africa, much less Libya, will soon look like — although the grotesque shooting of Qaddafi is in contrast with the trial of Saddam, and so far the Iraqi government has not subordinated its entire legal system to Sharia law, which was the first proclamation from the new Libyan “government” (i.e., the National Transitional Council, whose leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil just boasted, “As a Muslim country, we have adopted the Islamic Sharia as the main source of law. Accordingly, any law that contradicts Islamic principles with the Islamic Sharia is ineffective legally”).

In other words, to the degree the U.S., stupidly or wisely, puts troops on the ground before, during, or after an air campaign, it has a costly but positive role in postwar reconstruction (cf. Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.); but to the degree it does not, it does not. We hope that, in a year, Libya resembles an Islamizing Turkey and not chaotic Somalia or theocratic Iran, but we simply don’t know. I hope Friedman is correct that it “is now up to them,” but when a power removes by force a government (even a repulsive one) that did not pose a strategic threat, history suggests that it feels, or others feel, that it has some responsibility for what follows.

2) Whatever one thinks about Iraq and Afghanistan, they are not comparable to Libya. The former are distant, large countries of 30-some million people. Afghanistan is landlocked, with forbidding weather and terrain, and borders former Soviet republics, Pakistan, and Iran; Iraq in the heart of the ancient caliphate with neighbors like Syria and Iran. Libya, in contrast, is a tiny nation of 6.4 million people, almost all concentrated on the coast, and situated on the Mediterranean shore, an hour or so from traditional NATO bases. Removing Saddam or the Taliban and staying on to foster consensual government is simply a different level of magnitude than taking out Qaddafi — and who knows what next.

3) We cannot forget chronology: Iraq came before Libya. Qaddafi surrendered his biological, chemical, and quite surprisingly advanced nuclear programs after the removal of Saddam; had he not (and he probably would not have, without Saddam’s example), who knows what eight years of further development and deployment would have led to by 2011? With such weapons, both the rebels and NATO would have been far more cautious in their reactions to his use of force, The catalysts for the Arab Spring are many, but the trial of Saddam and the survival of a democratic government in Iraq were positive forces — as we saw from the Syrian departure from Lebanon and the arrest of Dr. Khan in Pakistan.

4) Qaddafi was a monster in rehab who by 2011 posed little strategic threat to the U.S. or its neighbors — at least so had argued the British, French, and Italian governments that were scrambling to negotiate new deals with him, and an array of American intellectuals, academics, and commercial reps who wrote about the so-called moderating influences in Libya and the next generation of Qaddafi offspring who would transition it back into the community of nations.

The Taliban, in contrast, were the hosts of the 9/11 attackers. We had fought one war against Saddam (who had attacked four of his neighbors) and were in the midst of a 12-year no-fly-zone effort that was shedding NATO allies, after a major bombing operation in the last year of the Clinton administration. Worries about Saddam were expressed in the 20-something writs passed by both houses of Congress in October 2002, after an earlier regime-change resolution passed in the Clinton era. There is no comparable legislation regarding Libya.

5) As far as authorization goes, it too is problematic: True, we got U.N. approval for Libya, unlike Iraq, but only to conduct a no-fly-zone and offer humanitarian assistance. Almost immediately we exceeded that — as we had to, if we were to win and remove the Qaddafi family — by targeted assassinations and a full-fledged bombing campaign in concert with the rebels. Does all that strengthen or weaken reliance on U.N. resolutions in the future? And unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, for which there were joint congressional resolutions, we intervened in Libya without the approval of Congress, and with many erstwhile critics of Bush’s interventions writing weird briefs explaining why the administration did not need congressional approval to bomb in Libya.

6) Friedman is right in saying that Republican leaders have a hard time admitting Obama’s anti-terrorism successes. But why is that? Perhaps because Obama was once a fierce critic of nearly all the Bush/Cheney anti-terrorism protocols — the Patriot Act, tribunals, renditions, preventive detention, Guantamo, Iraq — at a critical time when such political opposition almost ended them altogether, on the premise they were either amoral or ineffectual or both. But mirabile dictu, President Obama adopted or vastly expanded almost all of them, assured that his associates’ criticism would magically cease around January 2009, which of course it did.

So while GOP candidates should appreciate that the administration dispatched OBL, helped get rid of Qaddafi, and has taken out over 2,000 suspected terrorists through airborne assassination, they also notice the irony — and sense that if the country had listened to legislator, senator, and candidate Obama, then none of the tools he now seems to find so critical would even exist.