In this morning’s column, I argue against intervention in Libya’s internal strife — a battle proponents of intervention portray as the incorrigibly terrorist anti-American Qaddafi regime (known up until about 10 minutes ago as a staunch U.S. anti-terror ally) versus the “rebels” (the term used to obscure the fact that Qaddafi’s opposition includes the Muslim Brotherhood and other anti-American Islamists). I’ve been following the commentary with interest, including NRO’s excellent symposium this morning and the characteristically thoughtful commentary of folks like Daniel Pipes, Bill Kristol, Pete Wehner, Richard Perle, and Bret Stephens — all of whom appear to favor intervention, some more tepidly than others. Three points about some of the main pro-intervention arguments:
1. Proponents point repeatedly to what Michael Rubin describes as “President Bush’s 1991 decision to stand idle as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein crushed the Shiite revolt,” a decision that Michael — like Bret Stephens and Josh Muravchik, to cite just two — argues that we are still paying for. I don’t see Libya as comparable to Iraq in 1991.
The shameful aspect of the latter was that the Bush 41 administration actively encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up and overthrow a dictator who was then a clear enemy of the U.S. (indeed, one we had just driven out of Kuwait). By contrast, we haven’t done anything whatsoever to urge Libyans to overthrow Qaddafi. There is no similar implied moral obligation. If anything, we have spent the last several years discouraging Qaddafi’s opposition by reinventing him as a statesman, providing him with a modest amount of foreign aid, contributing to charities controlled by his family, and encouraging U.S. businesses to “partner” with his regime. Those were all stupid things to do, to be sure. But the relevant point is that, from the perspective of what the “rebels” could fairly infer from U.S. conduct, Qaddafi 2011 is not Saddam 1991. We haven’t done anything to incite a Libyan revolt; Libyans decided to do that themselves, and we don’t owe them any help. How much, if any, effort and sacrifice we ought to make on their behalf depends strictly on how American interests are affected.
2. Another increasingly popular contention is that because President Obama has made a public declaration that Qaddafi must go, we must make good on this pronouncement for the sake of American credibility — a point stressed by John Hannah, Jamie Fly, and Elliott Abrams, among others. But Obama and his administration make a lot of fitful, incoherent, contradictory, and empty pronouncements (on which, see Michael Ledeen today at Pajamas). By the logic of their argument, Messers. Hannah, Fly, and Abrams should have rallied behind the teetering Egyptian regime, since the administration wagered America’s credibility on propping up Mubarak before the president jabbed a moistened finger in the breeze and finally decided the dictator had to go. And Mr. Obama clearly decided that Iranians did not rate our support against their monstrous regime because that would have disturbed the strategy of negotiations and “mutual respect” behind which the president decided to stack American credibility — should we support that one, too?
It is very unfortunate to have a president who, when not careening from one position to the next, is apologizing for America’s alleged sins rather than pursuing America’s interests. That, however, is an argument for electing a new president, not for rallying to his side when, like the proverbial broken clock, he inevitably says something that pleases you. Being militarily proactive in Qaddafi’s ouster is either a good or a bad idea on its own merits; the case is not advanced by an American credibility argument rooted in what President Obama happens to be saying today — he’s apt to be saying something very different tomorrow.
3. The suggestion that the “rebels” must be armed so they can at least have a fair fight with Qaddafi’s forces is also popping up with increasing frequency — including in the symposium from Messrs. Abrams, Fly, Hannah, Muravchik, and Benjamin Weinthal; and while David Pryce-Jones thinks the anti-Qaddafi forces are “doomed” because of the “West’s inertia,” he argues that we should have armed them “if they so demanded” while it still mattered. I must respectfully disagree. The United States has a checkered history of arming murkily described Muslim “rebels” who turn out to be Islamists. We need to know exactly who we’re helping before we plunge ahead.
It is fair enough to contend that the upside of bleeding the Soviets was worth the price in Afghanistan — even though we are still dealing with the fallout, which includes having reinforced the ties between Pakistani intelligence and Qaeda-tied jihadists, both of which still menace us. But Clinton’s gambit in the former Yugoslavia included looking the other way while Iran armed the Bosnian Muslims, set up a jihadist network on the doorstep of Western Europe, and set in motion the chain of events that led to the U.S.-supported creation of a Muslim state, Kosovo — one of whose nationals last week killed two American airmen and wounded two others in Germany while screaming Allahu Akbar. (For more on Kosovo and the jihad, see Caroline Glick and Melanie Phillips.) How much goodwill did we buy from the ummah by coming down so decisively against their Serbian tormentors?
I appreciate and respect the desire to strike against Qaddafi. As Ray Ibrahim says, that he “is an anti-American and tyrannical thug, there is no doubt.” But the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were collaborating against us with Islamist terrorists when we acted to remove them, and Iran has empowered those same terrorists and killed many Americans while we have opted to give the mullahs a pass. At the moment we are not threatened by Libya, Qaddafi’s successors could end up being just as bad or worse for us, and there is no empirical reason to believe aiding beleaguered Muslims earns us any gratitude from Muslims or security from Muslim terrorists. There is nothing for us in Libya.