Have we learned nothing? Eight years to the day (March 19, 2003) that we launched the failed Iraq War, we find ourselves drawn into yet another war in a Middle Eastern country with absolutely no idea of what we are getting ourselves into. Let’s look at our rock-solid preparation:
-No congressional declaration of war.
-No stated exit strategy.
-No discussion of how much this will cost. (Haha, and I thought people cared about the deficit!)
-No honest discussion of whether we can achieve our stated objectives (of course, if you have vague objectives, you can always bullshit this one. See: Iraq War, Afghan War, Vietnam War…etc. Or, you can just blindly trust that America can do no wrong. It works out great in Middle Eastern wars!)
I rounded up some of the best commentary I’ve seen on the Libyan war so far:
Launching air strikes is the easiest, most exciting, and most dependably successful stage of a modern war, from the US / Western perspective. TV coverage is wall-to-wall and awestruck. The tech advantages are all on our side. Few Americans, or none at all, are hurt. It takes a while to see who is hurt on the ground.
But after this spectacular first stage of air war, what happens then? If the airstrikes persuade Qaddafi and his forces just to quit, great! But what if they don’t? What happens when a bomb lands in the “wrong” place? As one inevitably will. When Arab League supporters of the effort see emerging “flaws” and “abuses” in its execution? As they will. When the fighting goes on and the casualties mount up and a commitment meant to be “days, not weeks” cannot “decently” be abandoned, after mere days, with so many lives newly at stake? When the French, the Brits, and other allies reach the end of their military resources — or their domestic support — and more of the work naturally shifts to the country with more weapons than the rest of the world combined?
It looks more like once we’ve closed down Qaddafi’s air forces we’ve basically taken custody of what is already a failed rebellion. We’ve accepted responsibility for protecting them. Once we recognize that, the logic of the situation will lead us to arming our new charges, helping them get out of the jam they’re in.
So let’s review: No clear national or even humanitarian interest for military intervention. Intervening well past the point where our intervention can have a decisive effect. And finally, intervening under circumstances in which the reviled autocrat seems to hold the strategic initiative against us. This all strikes me as a very bad footing to go in on.
And this doesn’t even get us to this being the third concurrent war in a Muslim nation and the second in an Arab one. Or the fact that the controversial baggage from those two wars we carry into this one, taking ownership of it, introducing a layer of ‘The West versus lands of Islam’ drama to this basically domestic situation and giving Qaddafi himself or perhaps one of his sons the ability to actually start mobilization some public or international opinion against us.
The regime is shooting unarmed civilians at will – killing scores. We must surely stop this. Oh, wait. It’s Yemen, and we support the regime. Meanwhile, the Bahrainian autocracy, backed by the Saudi theocracy, “cleanses” its capital city of the symbols of democratic hope, with the assistance of foreign troops. But we are somehow able to resist the impulse to intervene – and maintain diplomatic relations with the royal family there.
The trouble with intervening somewhere is that it begs the question of: why not somewhere else? If the motive is entirely humanitarian, and involves no “vital national interest”, then how can it be compatible with allowing, say, the Iranian dictatorship to kill, shoot dead, torture and disappear countless Iranians who peacefully sought real change?
Yes, the Obama administration has now interjected American power into what was a few days ago a revolution entirely for the Arab world to resolve itself. My fear is that this decision was made without a thorough public airing of all the unanswered questions about unintended consequences. I worry that the West’s involvement will merely reignite the paradigm in which the Arab world is incapable of reforming itself without meddling from the West, and revives the danger of changing the subject from the malfeasance and incompetence of the various regimes to the broader argument about the Arab world’s relationship with the outside world. I remain of the view that, for reasons of prudence and constitutional propriety.
After George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion of Panama, New York Times correspondent R.W. Apple wrote that starting new military conflicts is “a Presidential initiation rite,” that “most American leaders since World War II have felt a need to demonstrate their willingness to shed blood,” and that Bush’s order to attack tiny, defenseless Panama “has shown him as a man capable of bold action.” Just as the Founders predicted, allowing Presidents to order military attacks without the approval of the citizenry (through their Congress) has engendered a whole slew of unnecessary wars that serve the political and ruling classes but not the people of the country.
The dangers from unilateral, presidential-decreed wars are highlighted in the Libya situation. There has been very little public discussion (and even less explanation from the President) about the reasons we should do this, what the costs would be on any level, what the end goal would be, how mission creep would be avoided, whether the “Pottery Barn” rule will apply, or virtually anything else. Public opinion is at best divided on the question if not opposed. Even if you’re someone who favors this intervention, what’s the rationale for not requiring a debate and vote in Congress over whether the President should be able to commit the nation to a new military conflict? Candidate Obama, candidate Clinton, and the Bush-era Democrats all recognized the constitutional impropriety of unilateral actions like this one; why shouldn’t they be held to that?
Adm Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the outcome of military action from the air was “very uncertain” and made it clear that Washington did not see the goal of Operation Odyssey Dawn as removing the Libyan leader from power.
Opening up the possibility of a rift between the US and Britain and France if the Gaddafi regime does not crumble quickly, he said: “The goals are limited. It’s not about seeing him go. It’s about supporting the United Nations resolution which talked about eliminating his ability to kill his own people.”
Adm Mullen said it was “certainly potentially one outcome” that the mission could succeed while leaving Col Gaddafi in power.
So basically, we can blow a couple hundred million dollars launching Tomahawks and aircraft into Libya, only to leave a pissed-off, wounded Qaddafi in power. The only way we win is if the rebels are able to recover, push all the way to Tripoli, and then seize power from Qaddafi in a relatively short amount of time. Every single other outcome is a failure for American and NATO forces and a propaganda victory for Qaddafi. If Qaddafi doesn’t fall, what then? Do we maintain a no-fly zone indefinitely while waiting for the rebels to gain strength? Do we send in ground troops? Do we start targeting Qaddafi? We could always just walk away, but I doubt we as a nation have the moral courage to do that. Peggy Noonan had a great piece in the Wall Street Journal recently that was spot on:
The biggest takeaway, the biggest foreign-policy fact, of the past decade is this: America has to be very careful where it goes in the world, because the minute it’s there—the minute there are boots on the ground, the minute we leave a footprint—there will spring up, immediately, 15 reasons America cannot leave. The next day there will be 30 reasons, and the day after that 45. They are often serious and legitimate reasons.
So we wind up in long, drawn-out struggles when we didn’t mean to, when it wasn’t the plan, or the hope, or the expectation.
We have to keep this phenomenon in mind as we chart our path in the future. It’s easy to start a war but hard to end one. It’s as simple as that. It’s easy to get in but hard to get out. Even today, in Baghdad, you hear that America can’t leave Iraq because the government isn’t sturdy enough, the army and police aren’t strong enough to withstand the winds that will follow America’s full departure, that all that has been achieved—a fragile, incomplete, relative peace—will be lost. America cannot leave because Iraq will be vulnerable to civil war, not between Sunnis and Shiites, they tell you now, but between Arabs and Kurds, in the north, near the oil fields.