Pres. Barack Obama’s reluctant military intervention in Libya followed from a number of logical considerations. First, his administration had been widely criticized for much of 2011 for his contradictory and tardy admonitions to pro-Western Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to step down in the face of mounting domestic political pressure. Too often, the degree of American official support for reformers in the streets of the Middle East seemed predicated only on their chances of success — as if the Nobel peace laureate Obama were some sort of Kissingerian realist rather than a principled proponent of universal human rights.
That charge of moral indifference grew louder as the president again kept silent during three weeks of escalating violence in Libya — at least until February 23, when he finally expressed anger over the unrest. He subsequently dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Europe to echo the more muscular rhetoric of our French and British allies and at last announced American intentions to enforce a no-fly zone in reaction to a United Nations Security Council resolution of March 17.
When the nearly victorious rebels seemed to be headed for Tripoli, and even the opportunistic Arab League joined the world chorus of support for them, the president apparently assumed that Qaddafi would, like Mubarak and Ben Ali, depart quietly. After all, the rebellion was ostensibly as noble as the terrorist Qaddafi was savage. Libya’s insurgents, heretofore unknown, would presumably prove to have the same Westernized veneer as the Egyptian and Tunisian professionals who had become the international media face of Middle East protests.
Moreover, in operational terms, pilots flying over Libya, unlike those in Afghanistan, would enjoy clear skies and flat, uninterrupted terrain, and would be pitted against a small and relatively inexperienced military — a probable cakewalk rather than a quagmire. In contrast with Iraq, Libya does not sit on the sensitive Persian Gulf between Sunni and Shiite theocratic oil exporters. Indeed, Tripoli is much closer to southern Europe than it is to the Middle East — which, along with its ample supplies of oil, explains why, for the first time since the Suez crisis of 1956, Europe was out in front of American intervention. Better yet, we had no embarrassing history of official support for a bloodthirsty Libya — unlike the Europeans, who were somewhat eager to do penance for their past close involvement with its murderous regime (and to ensure stable future supplies of oil from a grateful post–Qaddafi government).
Yet almost immediately, the neat and supposedly quick humanitarian effort became messy. The president announced ongoing success but was unable to articulate why and how Libya differed from the other humanitarian crises and Middle East upheavals that heretofore had not warranted American military intervention. In a larger sense, Obama seemed confused by the large gap between loudly proclaiming a new multilateral foreign policy and actually having to implement one.
Moreover, in the modern world, there are no island prisons like Elba or St. Helena to accommodate unrepentant monsters like Qaddafi who might prefer exile to Armageddon. While pro-American authoritarians are responsive to Western pressures and can find refuge in the Gulf or France, the far more savage anti-American totalitarians — Ahmadinejad, Assad, Saddam, and Qaddafi — accept that their fate hinges on keeping power or facing death. So as soon as Obama declared a Western-enforced no-fly zone, Qaddafi hunkered down and began slaughtering the rebels in earnest.
The administration seemed confused by this mounting bloodshed and Qaddafi’s resilience. But even if it had not been caught off guard, the best-run no-fly zone still could not by itself have prevented a Qaddafi victory, since his jets and gunships were not essential to putting down the rag-tag rebellion. So while American forces prepped the no-fly zone with an initial shower of cruise-missile attacks on ground installations, administration spokespeople were hard-pressed to explain a hands-off strategy that confused Americans about our actual war aims.
#page#To save the collapsing rebellion, air attacks had to target Qaddafi’s tanks, artillery, motorized columns, and government installations, the way Bill Clinton finally wore down Milosevic after eleven weeks of bombing and plenty of collateral damage. Only by physically destroying the government’s superior armed forces, humiliating Qaddafi, and either killing or putting to flight his ruling cadre could regime change work and the rebels have any chance of taking Tripoli.
Yet such escalation beyond a no-fly zone was either outsourced to the Europeans or haphazardly done in the dead of night with cruise missiles — as a result of American worries about exceeding a narrow Arab League mandate and United Nations resolution. Or perhaps Obama, the former law-school lecturer, rightly feared ordering a hit on a foreign leader in defiance of American law and international mandates. To square that circle, as the first week of operations ended, the United States loudly maintained that its intervention remained solely humanitarian in nature, and readjusted to preventing the use of Libyan government aircraft — even as the U.S. coordinated air attacks on Libyan ground assets, the Arab League hedged on its initial support, NATO dithered, and Security Council members such as Russia and China criticized the Western use of violence.
Amid the endlessly expanding pronouncements of a confused administration and Pentagon, conservatives and liberals alike faulted Obama for not spelling out either the ultimate ends of our intervention or the means by which they would be accomplished. In fact, though, the president had done both in a sort of fashion — and that was precisely his problem. Qaddafi had to go, but regime change could not be the expressed intent of our intervention. Apparently, we were to use airborne violence to prevent violence, but in a strategic manner that would ensure neither our explicit aim of stopping the bloodletting nor our implicit desire of replacing Qaddafi.
And by whom would he be replaced, if it happened? Westernized professionals? Islamists? Dissident officers and bureaucrats? The proverbial people? The Obama administration knew very little about the so-called rebels in Benghazi, thinking (or hoping) only that they had to be better than a murderous Qaddafi. That dream dissipated somewhat when disturbing news filtered out that Libya had sent more jihadists per capita into Iraq than had any other Islamic state. And the more we became acquainted with the insurgency, the more the experienced and skilled rebels turned out to be hard-core jihadists, not the array of pudgy doctors, lawyers, and professors who were as comfortable editorializing in English to Western television crews as they seemed unfamiliar with heavy weaponry.
Further embarrassments arose when all sorts of Western liberals surfaced who had found the post-Saddam Qaddafi and his Western-educated progeny to be not so much monstrous as eager to partner with Europeans and Americans — and to pay grandly for such newfound international acceptance. Celebrities like Mariah Carey and Beyoncé had hired themselves out to entertain members of the Qaddafi family. European militaries had trained the Libyan special forces that were now obliterating the rebels. The Monitor Group publicity firm had found plenty of scholars-for-dollars professors eager to write obsequious testimonials about Libya’s reforms in exchange for quite large honoraria. The London School of Economics had granted a doctorate to the ubiquitous Saif Qaddafi and then mysteriously received a Libyan grant of 1.5 million pounds. One wonders whether the insurgents, when in power, will prove so progressive in hiring Western intellectuals.
Sovereign countries do not have to be consistent in their use of force, but if they are not, they do have to offer some logical defense of their selectivity. Obama, however, for over a week did not even attempt to explain how intervening in Libya could be reconciled with his past sermons about not meddling when a million Iranians sought to topple their country’s theocracy, or why he sought “outreach” with the murderous “reformer” Assad in Syria, or how and why we were resorting to violence to help rebels in Libya while keeping silent over the use of force by the Saudi and Bahrain kingdoms to put down reformists. Are we to expect silence, sermons, or F-16s when, or if, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen begin toppling? That the only two democracies in the Middle East — pro-American Israel and American-birthed Iraq — were relatively quiet seemed almost embarrassing to the Obama administration. And if genocide was the worry, Libyan rebels were not dying in numbers like the Congolese or those in the Ivory Coast.
#page#President Obama has not offered a consistent typology of American responses to the various popular movements against Middle East military dictatorship, theocracy, monarchy, and oligarchy. Nor did the administration require such rebels to offer any evidence of an agenda, so we could gain some idea beforehand of whether they were better or worse than the authoritarians they sought to replace. Instead, administration spokesmen assured the public that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was now reformed and secular in nature, or that Facebook and Twitter users, not scarred veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, would assume control of these new reform governments.
Obama also put the multilateral cart ahead of the American congressional horse. In the past, most presidents have preferred to seek congressional approval and international sanction for military action, but in that order, and with the first, not the second, the only requisite for action. In contrast with both Bushes, who obtained congressional votes for their Iraq wars, Obama sought both U.N. and Arab League approval without asking the same of the U.S. Congress, whose members, unlike those of the other two bodies, are elected — and by the citizens who man and pay for the military operations in question.
Obama assumed that liberals would support an open-ended humanitarian intervention, since to do otherwise would further harm his weakened presidency and threaten their shared progressive domestic agenda. The fact that America would be killing people on the premise of saving people, sanctioned by various non-Western and often anti-American organizations, apparently reflected the fact that Obama thought he could now say and do whatever he pleased. And indeed, everyone from Howard Dean to the MSNBC talking heads agreed, offering surreal exegeses of why attacking a Muslim Arab oil-exporting nation that posed no direct threat to the United States not only was liberal, but could also proceed without resort to the liberal-inspired War Powers Act. In the administration’s further political calculus, neocons who had supported costly regime change in Iraq surely would not be so nakedly partisan as to oppose a lighter version of it in Libya.
Yet for a small but growing number on the left, Libya proved to be a bridge too far. Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, and Dennis Kucinich all damned Obama’s final betrayal of the anti-war cause. After railing against George W. Bush’s shredding of the Constitution, liberals had gone quiet when Obama embraced or expanded renditions, preventive detentions, Guantanamo, Predator-drone assassination missions, wiretaps, intercepts, and military tribunals. Although Candidate Obama had advocated taking troops out of Iraq by March 2008, President Obama still was very much in the theater three years later. In short, Libya put progressives between the rock of supporting their apostate president and the hard place of being exposed as abject hypocrites who had blasted Bush’s anti-terrorism policies and two wars between 2001 and 2008 on partisan grounds rather than principles.
Many conservatives have become more budgetary than military hawks, and thus are reluctant to fund yet a third Middle East war. In 2003, the first year of the Iraq War, the budget deficit was to reach $377 billion. Eight years and $6.8 trillion in new debt later, when Obama began launching over a hundred $1.4 million Tomahawk missiles, it was $1.6 trillion. If in theory conservatives supported resolute American action to secure freedom for Muslims, in reality they were tired of borrowing billions of dollars to subsidize post-war Muslim societies that seemed to denigrate their liberators’ magnanimity as imperialism, colonialism, Zionist-inspired, or mere naïveté.
Conservatives will readily support a Democratic president who wants to punish enemies who imperil America’s interests. The mass-murdering Qaddafi has four decades’ worth of American blood on his hands. But they will not rally to a tentative president who looks for a go-ahead from illiberal nations in the U.N. and the Arab League in preference to their own elected Congress, and begins a war by listing restrictions on the military rather than promising victory. Non-American NATO commanders of American forces are understandable, but not in a wider landscape in which an American president daily promises to “tone down” and “turn over” the American role in a war that he has just started — and which has no plausible objective, workable methodology, or envisioned outcome.
What, then, should be the diagnosis and prognosis of Obama’s Libyan malady? In some sense, Obama is a multilateral artist, and Libya is his greatest masterpiece. Noble-minded Europeans take the high profile while suspect Americans do the heavy lifting in the shadows. American officers publicly talk more of toning down a war than winning it. Female advisers — Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice — clamor for a use of force of the sort that a wobbly metrosexual American president seeks to resist. “Overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters” naturally set the standard for “kinetic military operations” in lieu of “war.” A postmodern commander in chief prefers Rio de Janeiro, handicapping college-basketball tournaments, and golf links to the dank White House war room when the bombs hit. Arab dictatorships and United Nations–approved autocracies exercise a veto power over our jets and missiles that American senators and representatives envy.
#page#Yet the confusion and ineptitude of Obama’s first week of warring in Libya do not guarantee the mission’s failure, since the United States military is rather hard to defeat. There is ample American precedent for snatching victory from the jaws of confusion and misdirection. In the Korean War, the Inchon landing was a work of genius, the subsequent dash to the Yalu River foolhardy, and the final recapture of Seoul by Gen. Matthew Ridgway inspired. A successful Grenada operation was not planned or executed well. The attack on Manuel Noriega easily succeeded despite operational blunders. We killed a lot of innocents to rid the Balkans of Slobodan Milosevic, in a campaign that began without either congressional or U.N. approval.
Our choices in Libya are now at least clear-cut: quit in the humiliating fashion that we did in Lebanon or Somalia; conduct a perpetual no-fly zone to preserve rebel sanctuaries in the manner of the twelve years of aerial vigilance in Iraq; send in the Marines to remove Qaddafi, and for the ensuing decade shepherd a new Libya; or bomb Qaddafi and his forces until he says “uncle” in the manner of Milosevic, before outsourcing the occupation to the nearby Europeans, NATO, and the U.N. Obama may wish to vote “present” on all those bleak choices, but one way or another, with or without him, one of them will be made in his war.
If we choose the Balkan option and decide to remove Qaddafi without the use of ground troops, we will have to change the mission from intercepting his now nearly nonexistent aircraft to systematically destroying his ground assets and command-and-control operations — even if that change in tactics offends the Arabs, Chinese, or Russians. Such a weeks-long, or even months-long, task is still within the power of an American military bogged down in two wars’ worth of rebuilding what we have leveled, with an insolvent federal government to boot. Yet the real worry may not be taking out Qaddafi per se, but — as in the case of post-war Afghanistan and Iraq, where the rapid removal of the Taliban and Saddam led to costly reconstructions — ensuring that something better follows.
Such a long Libyan engagement will be as costly and unwelcome for recessionary America as it will be distracting for an increasingly preoccupied and detached president.
– Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All (Bloomsbury).