Libya

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on August 22, 2011

We’ve been hearing for quite a while that Muammar Qaddafi’s days “are numbered,” but it appears that the latest pronouncements have quite the ring of truth about them. Well, Qaddafi is, and always has been a despicable figure, and no one will miss him. One can certainly hope that with his departure, Libyans will get more freedom, more opportunity, and a better quality of life, and that Libya will be welcomed back to the community of nations with open arms. There remains the nagging question of whether the opposition movement may contain seeds of Islamism, fundamentalism, or any other -ism that we might not find congenial, but for the moment, I will assume the best of the opposition, and hope that they live up to my expectations.

So, does this mean that my previously announced opposition to the war on Libya notwithstanding, I have changed my mind and become a Johnny-come-lately supporter of Operation Odyssey Dawn? Well . . . no.

First off, while we can hope that the Libyan opposition meets every optimistic expectation that we have of it, we cannot be sure that it will. The opposition may turn out to be just as bad as the Qaddafi regime has shown itself to be. Or it may only be marginally better. Or it may be worse. Or there may be a whole host of well-meaning figures in the opposition, but some small group might hijack it in a fashion that we might not like. We don’t know for sure at this point, and what we don’t know ought to be causing us some concern.

Secondly, remember the Pottery Barn Rule? The one that supposedly helped drag the United States into a postwar quagmire in Iraq? Well, it is going to apply in Libya as well. As the most powerful participant in NATO, and the chief catalyst for change in Libya, the United States has acquired the responsibility to help rebuild the country . . . even as we face a severe budget crisis, a potential double-dip recession, and nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. Funny, how so many–if not all–of the Obamaphiles who castigated those latter two nation-building projects, while lauding Operation Odyssey Dawn simply because a President of their choice was the one who launched the war, haven’t expressed any qualms about the fact that we now have a new nation-building project on our hands. Will NATO assist in nation-building? Will it put troops on the ground to help see nation-building through? Will those troops help train Libyan security forces, and consolidate the situation for the new Libyan government? Will the United States put in troops to help in that effort?

Speaking of similarities between Libya and Iraq, while I certainly hope that this doesn’t happen, we may yet face an insurgency campaign in the country that seeks to overthrow, or undermine the Transitional National Council. Air power appears to be working in getting rid of the Qaddafi regime, but air power won’t work in putting down any insurgency. If an insurgency springs up, will NATO apply classic counterinsurgency methods by putting troops in Libya? Will the United States join in?

Finally, even if the Libyan adventure turns out in a way that is entirely congenial to the United States, I would still argue that we should not have gone in. At best, American interests were only tangentially affected by the civil war in Libya. Moreover, as Ilya Somin points out, “there are still serious questions about the legality and wisdom of the administration’s policy,” which he spells out in detail. It is worth emphasizing anew that those who decried the alleged Imperial Presidency of the Bush Administration, while offering full-throated support to the Obama Administration’s approach in prosecuting the war in Libya (which according to the Obama Administration, somehow never actually was a war), really never cared about the presence of an Imperial Presidency. All they cared about was whether their Presidential candidate of choice would serve as the Imperial President in question; so long as he does, they have no problems whatsoever with the vast expansion of Presidential power.

Even if Libya becomes a latter day Eden, too many risks were taken, too many Constitutional principles were bent, and too much treasure was expended over an operation that did not materially affect American interests. I do not doubt that the humanitarian crisis in Libya was significant–and make no mistake, the Obama Administration’s response to that crisis, and to the tyranny of Qaddafi and other Middle Eastern autocrats in general, was positively Bushian–but Operation Odyssey Dawn constituted a greater expenditure of American power than was warranted, and may end up generating significantly more humanitarian, political, strategic, and military headaches for the United States, for its allies, and for the affected region down the line.

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