Success In Libya Does Not Justify An Unnecessary, Improper Decision By President Obama

Success in Libya does not make the American mission any less unjustified than it was on the day President Obama announced it.

While the battle for Tripoli still rages, it is rather apparent at this point that the final collapse of the regime of Muammar Ghadafi is, if not totally destroyed, on its last legs and that his 42 year old one man dictatorship is at an end. Not surprisingly, that has led many people to the conclusion that President Obama’s decision to back the UN/NATO mission in Libya in March was justified because, well, it worked. While President Obama will get, and does deserve, some degree of credit for achieving the goal of overthrowing Gadhafi at a minimal cost to the United States in lives and money, however, none of that success eliminates the serious questions that were raised by the Obama Administration’s decision to intervene in Libya, and the manner in which they went about doing so.

Over at The Washington Examiner, for example, Timothy Carney points out that the mere fact of success in the toppling of the Gadhafi regime (which doesn’t really address the issue of what comes next, of course) does not make an illegal war suddenly legal,  and Reason’s Nick Gillespie agrees and points to this piece by Glenn Greenwald, who unlike some on the left, has been admirably consistent in his opposition to illegal, unprovoked wars:

No decent human being would possibly harbor any sympathy for Gadaffi, just as none harbored any for Saddam.  It’s impossible not to be moved by the celebration of Libyans over the demise of (for some at least) their hated dictator, just as was the case for the happiness of Kurds and Shiites over Saddam’s.  And I’ve said many times before, there are undoubtedly many Libya war supporters motivated by the magnanimous (though misguided) desire to use the war to prevent mass killings (just as some Iraq War supporters genuinely wanted to liberate Iraqis).

But the real toll of this war (including the number of civilian deaths that have occurred and will occur) is still almost entirely unknown, and none of the arguments against the war (least of all the legal ones) are remotely resolved by yesterday’s events.  Shamelessly exploiting hatred of the latest Evil Villain to irrationally shield all sorts of policies from critical scrutiny — the everything-is-justified-if-we-get-a-Bad-Guy mentality — is one of the most common and destructive staples of American political discourse, and it’s no better when done here.

Greenwald is, of course, absolutely correct here. Leaving aside the all-too-real possibility that Libya will descend into civil war and chaos and that we’ll be faced with a Somalia-like situation within striking distance of Europe and the shipping lanes of the Mediterranean Sea, one of the truly unfortunate dangers of the “success” in Libya is that it reinvigorates an interventionist argument whose credibility had been, thankfully, called into serious doubt by our decade-long involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can almost hear the arguments now…….. it worked in Libya why not try it here? Of course, as I’ve noted before, neither the United States nor NATO are going to suddenly go out on “humanitarian” missions when the risks are too high, which is why the people are Syria shouldn’t count on anyone coming to their aid any time soon, but all that really does is create an argument that justifies interfering in the internal affairs of other nations as long as they aren’t strong enough to actually fight back too hard. It’s neither moral, nor is it a proper use of American military force, which should primarily concern itself with the protection of the vital national interests of the United States.

John Cole is more forceful in his evaluation of this seeming victory, and the question of whether or not it should change the opinion of anyone who has opposed this war from the beginning:

Does that change my initial opposition to US involvement? Not one bit. You all can go on and on about good v. bad intervention, about how I am still scarred by Iraq, and whatever. I’m thinking with our economic woes and the history of blowback in the region, it’s not all crazy or radical for us to not get involved in things for a while and let things sort themselves out.

Does that change my opinion about the ludicrous notion that providing air cover, using smart bombs and predator drones, providing intelligence and technological assets, as well as a large CIA presence on the ground means we are not, as the administration asserted, engaged in hostilities? No. I still think that is laughable, perhaps one of the dumbest things I have ever heard, and will be used by future administrations for less “noble” pursuits. I can’t wait to hear the howls when President Palin insists we are not in hostilities with Iran, just bombing them and providing Israel with munitions, technology, and other assets.

Does it change my belief that Obama’s actions sidestepping Congress will be used again in the future? No.

Does it change my belief that intervention was sold with a flood of bullshit, with phrases like “Arab No-Fly Zone” being tossed around? No.

Does it change the fact that the pretext for this was to stop a massacre, but we were clearly gunning for regime change from day one? No.

Does it change my belief that every time we use our military, it will be pointed to as a reason for more and more military involvement in other places? No.

Does it change my belief that there appears to have been approximately ZERO planning for the aftermath? No.

Does it change my opinion that we know literally nothing about the rebels who appear to be winning? No.

Does it change my opinion that a lot of this is not about Gaddafi, but about a steady supply of the light sweet crude that Europe is so dependent on for their ultra-low sulfur diesel fleet? No.

I’ve made my own opposition to intervention in Libya clear from the start. For one thing, it became eminently clear early on in the mission that the threat of a humanitarian crisis that was used to justify the United Nations Security Council Resolutions that justified the action was more of an excuse than anything else, and that the rebels themselves were likely greatly exaggerating the “abuses” of the Libyan regime in order to gain Western sympathy. More importantly, though, I opposed the action because of the overwhelming reasons to be against it. There was, to put it bluntly, no reason to involve ourselves in yet another military action at a time when our troops are already stretched to the limit thanks to two wars we’ve been fighting for ten years, one of which doesn’t seem to have any geographic limitation at all. There was no reason to spend money we don’t have to come to the rescue of allies who aren’t willing to make the investments necessary to protect our own interests. Most importantly, there was no reason to get involved in a conflict in which our own national interests were not implicated in any manner whatsoever.

Finally, there are the serious legal and Constitutional questions raised by the President’s course of action in Libya. Instead of seeking approval from Congress for the Libya mission, President Obama relied solely on a series of United Nations Security Council Resolutions that authorized force for the sole purpose of protecting civilians. That justification quickly went out the window, though, and it became rather obvious from the start that the United States and NATO were primarily concerned with aiding the rebels, despite their questionable ties, not protecting civilians. While the Administration did notify Congress of the action as required by the War Powers Act, they failed to seek Congressional approval for the same and showed no inclination that they thought they needed to notwithstanding previous statements by the President and the Vice-President to the contrary. When the 60 day WPA time limit approached, they made the absurd argument that the United States was not engaged in “hostilities.” Of course, Congress is partly responsible here as well considering that they failed to take any steps to challenge the President’s clear violation of the law. Nonetheless, the President fought an illegal war, and the fact that it worked doesn’t justify that fact that he acted improperly.

I’ll be as happy as anyone else to see Gadhafi gone, but the ends don’t justify the means.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Barack Obama, Law and the Courts, Military Affairs, National Security, Politicians, US Politics, World Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    I basically agree: success does not in itself justify the initial decision to intervene.

  2. MBunge says:

    Let’s be clear about something. Glenn Greenwald and John Cole, by their very words, think it was entirely correct and proper for the U.S. and the rest of the world to sit by and do nothing about the genocide in Rwanda. Far from being a shameful act of moral cowardice that acquiesed in the murder of over half a million people, the arguments of Greenwald and Cole would enshrine Rwanda as a outstanding example of their “Prime Directive” approach to international killing sprees.

    Mike

  3. mantis says:

    It’s neither moral, nor is it a proper use of American military force, which should primarily concern itself with the protection of the vital national interests of the United States.

    Do you really believe US involvement is immoral? Would the moral thing been to let Gadhafi crush the rebels when we could reasonably do something to help them?

    For one thing, it became eminently clear early on in the mission that the threat of a humanitarian crisis that was used to justify the United Nations Security Council Resolutions that justified the action was more of an excuse than anything else, and that the rebels themselves were likely greatly exaggerating the “abuses” of the Libyan regime in order to gain Western sympathy.

    Based on what? The opinions of two professors, who are basically saying that Gadhafi wasn’t as ruthless as the Hutu in Rwanda, so no big deal? That’s pretty weak. I submit this from HRW’s Tom Malinowski as a response:

    Qaddafi’s long track-record of arresting, torturing, disappearing, and killing his political opponents to maintain control suggests that had he recaptured the east, a similar fate would have awaited those who supported the opposition there. Over a hundred thousand Libyans already fled to Egypt fearing Qaddafi’s assault; hundreds of thousands more could have followed if the east had fallen. The remaining population, and those living in refugee camps abroad, would have felt betrayed by the West, which groups like Al Qaeda would undoubtedly have tried to exploit. Finally, Qaddafi’s victory—alongside Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s fall—would have signaled to other authoritarian governments from Syria to Saudi Arabia to China that if you negotiate with protesters you lose, but if you kill them you win.

  4. ponce says:

    I didn’t agree with the decision to attack Libya, but…isn’t this why we elect leaders?

  5. john personna says:

    It kills “conflict inflaters” that a limited action, with limited downside, paid off.

    I ask you, would a “real” war, with a congressional vote, more spending, and more lives at risk have been *better* in anything other than a rhetorical sense?

    Be happy with limited operations, below the threshold. Don’t try to grow them, in order to oppose them.

  6. Hey Norm says:

    Personally I would not have undertaken this…but diplomatically what choice did we have? Libya asked for help and our European Allies responded. The Senate passed a non-binding resolution for a no-fly-zone…who did you think was going to enforce it? In the end Qaddafi is gone with no American casualties. In 20 years it will be a blip…like Bosnia. Iraq? Not so much.

  7. Herb says:

    Our commitments to NATO, right or wrong, justified the LIbya mission. Success just exonerates it.

    Cole makes some great points in his rant, but it’s all just pissing in the wind at this point, innit?

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Do you really believe US involvement is immoral? Would the moral thing been to let Gadhafi crush the rebels when we could reasonably do something to help them?

    Is it more moral to spend billions of dollars on a questionable military adventure while taxes are held artificially low and a not insignificant segment of the population wants to end SS and Medicare?

    Qaddafi’s long track-record of arresting, torturing, disappearing, and killing his political opponents to maintain control suggests

    Replace “Qaddafi” with China and you can see how ludicrous the argument is. One needs to remember that there are worse things than Qaddafi. Think Afghanistan under the Taliban. I am glad that Qaddafi is gone only so long as what replaces him is better. We can not fix the world. Hell, we can’t even fix our own country.

  9. JohnMcC says:

    The Constitutional power to declare war given to the Congress has been a joke since Thomas Jefferson was President. And the modern ‘Authorization of Military Force’ is not much less a joke.

    We hold certain Constitutional checks on the powers of the Presidency close to our hearts but do not actually wish them to be enforced. There is nothing in the ‘enumerated powers’ of the President that authorized Jefferson to make the Louisiana Purchase. Should we dig him up and impeach him?

    Without an ‘Authorization’, we still did the right thing in Libya. The House had it’s chance to de-fund the operation and slunk away from accepting that responsibility. In whose hands does that leave the outcome?

    Without an ‘Authorization’, we could still have stopped the Rwandan Genocide. Ex President Bill Clinton had the grace, too long delayed, to go to Rwanda and apologize.

    We should thank Providence that we don’t have to see another American ex-President going to Benghazi to apologize to the few survivors there.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    @john personna:
    That is very well laid-out. It’s something I haven’t come entirely to grips with myself, this friction between the law and the politics and the practicality.

    In a perfect world that friction wouldn’t exist. Obviously it makes me very squeamish to have any president have unlimited power to engage US forces. But it’s also the case that Congress has very deliberately set aside the use of their power in favor of sitting on the sidelines and sniping while refusing responsibility.

    Then there are the practical aspects. Of course it was about regime change. Just as clearly we couldn’t announce that and be able to get a UN resolution. Diplomacy requires a degree of deception and e sometimes need to offer other countries a leve of deniability.

    Someone smarter than me is going to have to figure out how to square this circle.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    It’s wrong though to argue that because we can’t do X and Y we also can’t do Z. It’s like arguing that because we didn’t catch 3 murderers we’re going to have to let the 4th go free as well.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Our commitments to NATO, right or wrong, justified the LIbya mission. Success just exonerates it.

    NATO is a mutual defense pact, not “offense”.

    Cole makes some great points in his rant, but it’s all just pissing in the wind at this point, innit?

    Only if you think illegal wars are just something we have to live with.

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Michael, it is called logic. An argument should hold true in all instances, not just the ones you favor. (if it makes you feel any better, substitute Iran… or N KOrea… or Somalia…)

    It’s like arguing that because we didn’t catch 3 murderers we’re going to have to let the 4th go free as well.

    No it isn’t like that at all because, you know, murder is not same as war. Nice strawman tho.

  14. Moderate Mom says:

    It’s amusing how approval of “intervention” always seems to be in direct proportion to ideology. Remember all those protests over the illegality of the Iraq war? Why, those protests almost numbered the protests over the illegality of the Libya mission. Not.

    Remember the concern over the innocents civilians being killed in Iraq? Man, the concern for innocent civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in Libya is even greater. Not.

    Democrats hate war, but only when it isn’t their guy starting it or continuing it. Meanwhile, we are still in Iraq, have even more troops in Afghanistan than when Bush was in office, and now have been bombing Libya. And most of the left is either approving, or completely silent.

    Where are the principled protesters? Nowhere to be found, since “their guy” is now in charge.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    It’s not a straw man.

    Morally it’s the same principle. Do we have a moral obligation to stop a murder if we can do so? Yes. Can we avoid that moral obligation just because we can’t stop all murders? No.

    Arguing that we cannot do all, therefore we need not do any is untenable.

    Were we morally obligated to intervene in Rwanda? I’d say yes. Those with the power to resist evil have a moral obligation to do so. As a practical matter there was probably nothing we could do — no treaties, no authorization, a very short time window, no major assets close by — and that inability to effect a positive outcome counters our moral obligation.

    I think it’s wrong on its face to say that all wars are immoral. They certainly all encompass immoral actions. But our efforts in WW2 were moral in the overall, while many specifics were not. We have a right to defend ourselves, but we also have an obligation to step in to defend the weak. If we did not have that obligation we’d have no moral basis for sending food aid to starving countries. Food aid and war are both extensions of our power into some other country with the goal of affecting an outcome.

  16. Curtis says:

    @Moderate Mom:

    MM, not sure if you’re being intentionally obtuse here or not, but see all of the words in red in the post: most of them are links to posts, most of them by progressives, railing against the Libya action.

    Is the size of the concern less than with the Iraq war? Yes. Is that regretable? Yeah. Some of it I am sure is due to the parties involved. But I’d argue a lot more of it is due to the size of the mission. The war in Libya is on a much, much smaller scale in terms of time, cost, and manpower than Iraq. It is only natural that the outrage will be on the scale with the conflict.

    To claim it is all merely hypocrisy is thoughtless analysis.

  17. john personna says:

    @Moderate Mom:

    It’s amusing how approval of “intervention” always seems to be in direct proportion to ideology. Remember all those protests over the illegality of the Iraq war? Why, those protests almost numbered the protests over the illegality of the Libya mission. Not.

    As I’ve said in other threads, a difference in size can make a difference in kind.

    I am not a historian, but I’m sure that presidents have ordered a lot of “bombardments” in the last 200 years (first naval, and then aerial). They do fall below wars in “kind.” That’s just the way it is. If you go look up lists of wars, it will be far, far, below the hypothetical list of *everything*.

    In fact, remember the Marine anthem and “to the shores of Tripoli?”

    In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson sent a squadron to punish the Barbary Pirates. Find his declaration of war. This list should help:

    Declaration of war by the United States

  18. john personna says:

    Oh, in a past thread Doug said that Jefferson “essentially” declared war on those Pirates. Well, Obama only “essentially” declared war on the same turf.

    You’t think Jefferson, with his passing knowledge of the Constitution would have known better. [sarc]

  19. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    But it’s also the case that Congress has very deliberately set aside the use of their power in favor of sitting on the sidelines and sniping while refusing responsibility.

    Congress also has the option of taking notice, and acting later. See Iran-Contra.

    When a president takes a risk like this, it extends out longer than the operation. Had Libya gone horribly wrong, Obama could have been impeached. Certainly.

  20. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    It’s amusing how approval of “intervention” always seems to be in direct proportion to ideology. Remember all those protests over the illegality of the Iraq war? Why, those protests almost numbered the protests over the illegality of the Libya mission. Not.

    Remember the concern over the innocents civilians being killed in Iraq? Man, the concern for innocent civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in Libya is even greater. Not.

    What this conveniently ignores is that the main issue most protesters had with Iraq was that the war was started under false pretence, mostly unilaterally and waged in a way that put military safety over civilian safety (which is understandable but a hackjob if you’re there to protect civilians).

    I, for my part, was opposed to Iraq but would probably have supported it if a good case had been made for intervention, it had been ratified by an international body and had taken more heed of civilian needs.

    The anti-war faction of the left is about as small as the libertarian anti-war faction of the right. The rest of us just want a morally acceptable case and a honest cost-benefit analysis.

    And the silence has probably more to do with the fact that both are scheduled to wind down than with the fact that the commander-in-chief is now a democrat :-).

  21. Ron Beasley says:

    I opposed the Libyan adventure. It concerns me that Obama did not get authorization from congress but at the same time with the dysfunctional congress we have I can understand why he didn’t. I will be glad when Ghadaffi is gone but I would still oppose it today. Not because I’m unsympathetic but because the US has reached a point where it can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman or savior. I care more about the American people.

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Morally it’s the same principle. Do we have a moral obligation to stop a murder if we can do so? Yes. Can we avoid that moral obligation just because we can’t stop all murders? No.

    Arguing that we cannot do all, therefore we need not do any is untenable.

    Michael, I must disagree. We can stop a large majority of all murders if we just round up 95% of those who have shown a propensity for violence. (or 95 % of those who have guns)

    But we don’t. Why? Because people have rights. Yes, you have a point…. but it gets mighty weak when we are talking about 2 or4 deaths versus thousands.

    I repeat: there are worse things than Qaddafi: The Taliban in Afghanistan for one.

    I repeat: Murder is nor war. Youy have offered a strawman.

  23. Joe R. says:

    @Hey Norm:

    Libya asked for help and our European Allies responded.

    “Libya” asked for help?

    In the end Qaddafi is gone with no American casualties.

    1) You know nothing about who or what is going to replace Qaddafi.
    2) Brown casualties don’t count, I guess.

  24. OzarkHillbilly says:

    God I am a sloppy typist….

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Morally it’s the same principle. Do we have a moral obligation to stop a murder if we can do so? Yes. Can we avoid that moral obligation just because we can’t stop all murders? No.

    And Michael;to conclude, I can only say, you have the wrong model.

    Can we stop some murders? Yes. Which ones? That is a question that has not been answered yet, because we can not stop them all.

  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And let me point out, Congress could have defended it’s constitutional rights. It chose not to because they have lost sight of what is right or wrong and can only see the partisan leanings of the players

  27. Herb says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    “NATO is a mutual defense pact, not “offense”.”

    In the messy world of international conflict, “defense” is offense. Your distinction is near meaningless.

    Only if you think illegal wars are just something we have to live with.

    “Illegal” has a very specific definition. NATO’s involvement has been approved by the UN. It’s unlikely that any domestic court will find that our involvement is “illegal.” As you have pointed out, Congress isn’t going to do anything about it.

    Commentators can call it “illegal” all they like, but it won’t be until a court of law agrees.

  28. WR says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Murder is not war. Does that mean war is not murder? If your child lived peacefully in Baghdad until W decided to rain missiles down on the city, do you make the distinction?

    War is murder, multiplied thousands or millions of times. One can make the case that it is justified, but if you don’t accept that you will be murdering uncountanble numbers of people and weigh that against the goal, you do no deserve to lead.

    Which is why W will go down in history as a moral monster.

  29. Eric Florack says:

    Success? I’m not so sure.
    Libya’s new constitution cites sharia as the “principal source of legislation.” deck.ly/~g3WOs

    Funny nobody’s mentioned that.