What about Libya?
A reader posed the question regarding our latest military adventure after reading the geezer’s opinions (March 20 post, “When Will We Ever Learn?) regarding American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those opinions could be summarized as: “Get out.”
I’m a little nervous about another military entanglement in the Muslim world, but I believe the U.S engagement in Libya was justified. President Obama is being vilified just about equally by those who say we should have gone in sooner and those who claim we should not have entered the fray at all. Somewhere in the middle are various members of Congress who are complaining that they weren’t consulted, or even that Obama’s action was illegal without their approval.
It all reminds me of what many wise old U.S. Forest Service managers said during my career with that organization when we were in the middle of a controversy: “When we’re catching hell equally from the timber industry and the preservationists, we’ve got it about right.”
I think Obama got it about, but not quite, right this time.
To ignore the pleas for help from the young rebels in Libya would have sent a terribly wrong message to other youths calling for more freedom and democratic institutions throughout the Middle East. It would have sent an equally wrong signal to tyrants we have traditionally supported, such as the Saudi royal family. This, I think, is just the right time in history to change the course of our foreign policy to what we say it always has been—supporting freedom and democracy.
We don’t need to launch another dozen wars to pursue humane, rather than economic, goals. But we do need to demonstrate to the tyrants that they must make concrete progress toward reforms that benefit their people or they will lose any support we are giving them, and we will join international military opposition to them should it develop. We can help make the world a better place with that sort of policy.
Obama, I believe, made only one serious mistake in his approach to the Libyan situation. Early on, he announced to one and all that “Gadhafi must go.” That defined a not necessarily essential end point to the conflict. The current civil war could end in a stalemate, resulting in an east-west partitioning of Libya. I think a partition separating traditionally unfriendly tribes, although not entirely satisfactory, would represent progress. There was no reason to rule it out with an emotional declaration stating only one outcome is acceptable.
Otherwise, Obama did the correct things. He declines to agree with those who say he actually created an “Obama Doctrine” for dealing with rebellions against dictators, but I think he did. If he did, it’s a good doctrine.
He studied the situation carefully, almost until the last possible minute available to save the rebels. He waited for a commitment from the Arab League to oppose Gadhafi and a commitment from NATO allies to assume military leadership after our major involvement was completed. He helped get United Nations Security Council approval of action to protect Libyan civilians. He stated clearly that American troops would not be involved, and we were not going to accept a leadership position throughout the conflict.
This approach is superior to what we have done recently in the Middle East—launching an assault by all available American forces, dragging along only those allies we could coerce into participating. That’s the kind of action that got us in all the trouble in Iraq and Afghanistan, trouble we can’t seem to get out of.
Of course, the fact that the two wars have emptied our treasury may have been the primary factor in putting us on a better course than usual. Letting others take the military lead after a no-fly zone was established was a big cost saver for us. But it wasn’t a five-and-dime variety military action, either. Those Tomahawk cruise missiles (we fired about 112 the first night of our activities) cost $1 million to $1.3 million apiece. We had more than 2,000 stockpiled when we opened fire, so the costs won’t be immediate, but the bill will come due when we replenish the arsenal.
Those expensive missiles needed to be fired. Military leaders are unanimous in stating that the first step in establishing a “no-fly zone” is to knock out anti-aircraft weapons and detection systems. We did that pretty quickly. Now our involvement is limited to things we are very good at, such as aerial refueling and surveillance and related intelligence and communications operations. The rebels and our allies who have the biggest stake in creating a democratic Libya are handling the rest.
Our involvement in Libya has cost us some cash, but so far not one American life has been lost and we have saved many, many lives. Gadhafi said he would kill civilian opponents “like rats,” and go door to door to do it when he had the chance. There’s no reason to doubt his word on that. Our air and missile power attacks helped prevent slaughter on a giant scale. Obama needs only to stick to the limits he has set for American participation to make our part in the Libyan intervention a success we can take pride in.
Call the new approach whatever you want—a doctrine, a policy, a blunder, an accident of history. I call it a welcome, new approach when force becomes necessary to carrying out our responsibilities to help improve the human condition.