Yesterday was a crazy day here in Cambridge, and so I'm late with my reaction to the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Here's my initial take, for what it may be worth.
I don't think the death of any human being is something to celebrate, but there is no reason to mourn the man and we can take a certain grim satisfaction in his demise. Although one could point to a few achievements during his forty years as Libya's leader, such as improved literacy, the more important fact is that he was brutal and megalomaniacal dictator who killed his opponents, supported various forms of terrorism, stole much of Libya's wealth for himself and his cronies, and squandered innumerable opportunities to improve the lives of ordinary Libyans. Tin pot tyrants like him deserve no sympathy, and I feel none.
Moreover, Qaddafi's death probably reinforces some other positive aspects of the whole Libyan intervention. For starters, the campaign did not turn into a stalemate or a quagmire, as many of us feared and as seemed likely to occur at several moments during the war (and yes, it was a war). The Obama administration can also be congratulated for having shifted most of the burdens onto states whose interests were more directly at stake, and at having handled the necessary diplomacy fairly well (with one major caveat to be noted below).
The decision to intervene may have reinforced perceptions that the United States was in favor of democratic change in the Middle East, and kept some of the momentum of the "Arab Spring" alive. (According to Michael Hastings, that concern was a big part of Obama's rationale for going to war). It is also possible that the Colonel's fate will have a salutary effect on some other dictators (are you listening, Bashar?), and lead some of them to look for an early and safe exit instead of trying to hang on until the last bullet. Qaddafi's demise also eliminates any possibility of a restoration and spares the country the distraction of a prolonged trial and possible execution, thereby making it easier for Libyans to focus on the difficult task of constructing a workable political order.
So it would be foolish not to see a certain amount of good news in this outcome. But any sense of achievement should be tempered by several other considerations.
First, I still worry about the other lessons that other leaders may draw from Qaddafi's fate. He agreed to give up all his WMD programs in 2003, in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to overthrow him. And he got a lot of favorable attention from the United States after that--including a friendly visit from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- in part because he was openly hostile to Al Qaeda. Yet eight years later, that pledge was tossed aside and we intervened to help topple him from power. We should therefore expect the leaders of Iran and North Korea (and maybe some other countries) to draw the obvious conclusion: weapons of mass destruction are an effective means of deterring great powers from trying to overthrow you, and don't ever, ever believe Washington when it promises to leave you alone if you disarm.
Second, helping overthrow Qaddafi may have signaled U.S. support for the "Arab spring," but our response to upheavals in Bahrain and elsewhere shows that our policy is far from consistent. On the plus side, we did not allow at least one dictator to crush the opposition, and we can therefore claim to have taken action consistent with our values. But we are also guilty of obvious hypocrisy-both because we had previously embraced the supposedly reformed Qaddafi and because we have turned a blind eye when authoritarians on which we are more dependent cracked down on their populations. We can be sure that critics will remind us about our double-standards -- repeatedly. And any kudos we may have won in the Arab world are more than counteracted by our shameful policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
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Vacation is over, and as I took the bus to my office this morning I had a sudden thought: Whatever happened to the war in Libya? You know, the one that used to be on the front pages every day? The one that was critical to preventing a humanitarian bloodbath and to preserving the momentum of the "Arab Spring?" The one that Obama's obedient lawyers claimed didn't involve "hostilities," in a transparent effort to evade the requirements of the War Powers Resolution? Oh, right: that one.
Obviously, the war is still going on, and it sometimes rates a new story buried deep in the middle of the newspaper, but the hopes of a rapid and cheap victory were dashed a long time ago. Assuming NATO continues to back the rebels, they will probably succeed in slowly grinding the Qaddafi family/regime into the ground -- though apparently some European leaders are now saying that negotiations are the way to go, which suggests a less-than-optimal degree of unity among the coalition (h/t Juan Cole). But if Qaddafi does go, then the liberal hawks will give each other high-fives and do their best to obscure the miscalculations and longer-term consequences of this latest whimsical war.
Three thoughts. First, although the main justification for intervention was the fear of a possible "bloodbath" had Qaddafi's forces captured the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, a second rationale was the fear that permitting Qaddafi to triumph would derail the entire Arab Spring. In essence, this was a fear of "reverse contagion": If a kleptocratic dictator like Qaddafi could use force to stay in power in Libya, then other autocrats would be similarly emboldened and the progressive forces that had launched the various upheavals would lose heart. To keep the revolutionary wave moving forward, Qaddafi had to go.
This argument now seems fallacious. There was clearly an element of contagion in the original revolutionary wave, which spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Yemen to Bahrain and to Syria with remarkable speed. But like other examples of political contagion, the outcomes in each case depended on the constellation of local and external forces in each particular place and not on what was occurring in some other country. The outcome in Egypt is very different from those in Syria or Yemen, for example, and Libya and Bahrain and Morocco are carving their own paths too. In short, what happened in Libya probably had little or no effect on what is occurring elsewhere in the Arab world. To put it bluntly: If we had stayed out and Qaddafi had won outright, I suspect Assad would still be in trouble.
Second, back when NATO first got involved, a number of people made the obvious comparison to the 1999 war in Kosovo. Both wars were launched on impulse, there were no vital strategic interests involved, and both wars were fought "on the cheap" through the use of air power. NATO leaders expected the targets to succumb quickly and were surprised when their adversaries (Milosevic in 1999, Qaddafi today) hung on as long as they did.
But there's another parallel that deserves mention too. Serbia eventually surrendered, and I expect that Qaddafi or his sons will eventually do so too. But in the case of Kosovo, NATO and the U.N. had to send in a peacekeeping force, and they are still there 10 years later. And Kosovo has only about 28 percent of Libya's population and is much smaller geographically (some 10,000 square kilometers, compared with Libya's 1,800,000 sq. km.). So anybody who thinks that NATO, the United Nations, or the vaguely defined "international community" will be done whenever Qaddafi says uncle (or succumbs to a NATO airstrike) should probably lower their expectations and prepare themselves for long-term involvement in a deeply divided country.
Third, this latest little war leads me to think we need a new term. You all know the distinction between "wars of necessity" and "wars of choice." The line between the two is sometimes blurry, but we tend to think of the former as wars where vital strategic interests (and maybe national survival) are at stake, while the latter are wars where there is no immediate or urgent necessity for either strategic or humanitarian grounds, though one can imagine some strategic benefits accruing if all goes as planned. I propose a third category: "wars of whim." These are wars that powerful and wealthy countries fight for the same reasons that some powerful politicians cheat: "because they can."
It's not that the leaders who start these wars can't come up with reasons for what they are doing. Human beings are boundlessly creative, and a powerful state can always devise a rationale for using force. And proponents may even believe it. But the dictionary defines whim as a "sudden or capricious idea, a fancy." A "war of whim" is just that: a war that great powers enter without careful preparation or forethought, without a public debate on its merits or justification, and without thinking through the consequences if one's initial assumptions and hopes are not borne out. Wars of whim aren't likely to bankrupt a nation by themselves or even lead to major strategic reversals. But they are yet another distraction, at a time when world leaders ought to focusing laser-like on a very small number of Very Big Issues (like the economy).
So maybe that's the silver lining: If we're not paying much attention to Libya anymore, doesn't that tell us something about its real importance?
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With the U.S. and NATO's thumb firmly on the scale, the balance of power in Libya seems to be shifting steadily toward the rebel forces. That's bad news for the Qaddafi family, though their lack of attractive alternatives to fighting on makes it unlikely that they will simply surrender. This outcome is also not that surprising, as the Libyan military was never a first-class fighting force and it was not going to have real trouble standing up to the rebel forces once they started getting lots of outside help. The danger, however, is that the rebel forces will not be able to consolidate control over the entire country without a lot more fighting, including the sort of nasty urban warfare that can get lots of civilians killed.
As with the invasion of Iraq, in short, the issue wasn't whether the West could eventually accomplish "regime change" if it tried. Rather, the key questions revolved around whether it was in our overall interest to do so and whether the benefits would be worth the costs. In the Iraqi case, it is obvious to anyone who isn't a diehard neocon or committed Bush loyalist that the (dubious) benefits of that invasion weren't worth the enormous price tag. There were no WMD and no links between Saddam and al Qaeda, and the war has cost over a trillion dollars (possibly a lot more). Tens of thousands of people died (including some 4500 Americans), and millions of refugees had to flee their homes. And for what? Mostly, a significant improvement in Iran's influence and strategic position.
In the Libyan case, same basic question. Hardly anyone thinks the Qaddafi family deserves to run Libya, and few if any will mourn their departure. But assuming the rebels win, will the benefits of regime change be worth the costs? Secretary of Defense Gates has reported that the war has cost the United States about $750 million thus far, which is not a huge sum by DoD standards but not exactly trivial in an era of budget stringency. More troubling is the cost to Libya itself: NATO and the US intervened to ward off an anticipated "humanitarian disaster" (which might or might not have occurred and whose magnitude is anyone's guess); what we got instead was a nasty little civil war in which thousands may already have died (and the fighting isn't over yet). So we can look forward to lively debate on the wisdom of this intervention, with advocates claiming that we prevented a larger bloodbath and skeptics arguing that there was never any risk of a genocide or even a deliberate mass killing and that our decision to intervene actually made things worse.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is about to hit the 60 day deadline imposed by the War Powers Act, and so it is marshaling a lot of clever lawyers to find some way to keep the war going. But here's a radical suggestion: why not just go to Congress and ask for authorization? Such a step would be consistent with the U.S. Constitution, and President Obama made this very point himself before he became President. As he told the Boston Globe in 2007: "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." And if the case for this war is so strong and it is so clearly in our vital interests to do it, surely the articulate advocates in the Obama Administration won't have any trouble convincing Congress to go along.
At the same time, the US and NATO had better be thinking long and hard about what they are going to do if and when Qaddafi falls. As we are now seeing in some other contexts (e.g., Egypt), revolutionary change is usually chaotic, unpredictable, and violent, and it creates opportunities for various forms of mischief. These dangers loom especially large in Libya, due in good part to the lack of effective political institutions and the likelihood that some of the people we are backing now will want to settle scores with loyalists. And that possibility means there's also a risk of the same sort of loyalist insurgency that sprang up in Iraq, possibly rooted in long-standing tribal divisions.
So if the liberal interventionists who got us into this war want to make their decisions look good in retrospect, they had better have a plan to ensure that political transition in Libya goes a lot more smoothly than it did in Iraq. And you know what that means, don't you? We'll be there for longer than you think, and at a higher cost than one might hope. But no worries; it's not as though we have any other problems to think about (or spend money on) these days.
Was the decision to intervene in Libya justified by the threat of imminent massacres, and possibly even a genocide? And did President Obama have the authority to intervene?
If you're still wondering about either of those questions, I have two suggestions for further reading. The first is an op-ed by Alan Kuperman, which casts further doubt on the likelihood that Qadhafi's forces were about to engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of innocent bystanders in Benghazi. Kuperman points out that Qadhafi loyalists did not conduct massacres in any of the cities that they have recaptured, and that the Libyan tyrant's threats to show "no mercy" applied only to rebels. He also notes that the reported casualties are overwhelmingly male, which suggests that it is primarily combatants (i.e., rebels) who are being killed.
Note that Kuperman is no apologist for Qadhafi. He does not deny that Qadhafi is a thuggish ruler, that his loyalists were killing civilians, or that some of their actions constitute war crimes. The question, however, is whether there was an imminent risk of a bloodbath that "would stain the conscience of the world," as Obama put it.
Notice also that although Obama did not use the word genocide himself, both current and previous members of his administration did raise the spectre of a genocide in order to make the case for U.S. action. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former head of Policy Planning in the State Department, tweeted ""The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters. In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted." Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said ""We learned a lot in the 1990s. We saw what happened in Rwanda." The clear implication was that failure to act in Libya would produce hundreds of thousands of deliberate murders (which is what occurred in Rwanda in 1994).
Given that Qadhafi is a heinous ruler of dubious legitimacy, why does this matter? It matters because the case for intervention depends heavily on the magnitude of the humanitarian calamity that we sought to forestall. If the danger really was that grave, then the case for intervention goes up. But if the likely consequences of a Qadhafi victory were regrettable but not that large, then the case for intervention diminishes. And the case for action is even weaker if there is a genuine risk that intervention might prolong the fighting, produce a stalemate or a failed state, or provoke the government into acts of brutality that it might not have conducted otherwise.
Second: did Obama exceed his powers when he ordered the use of force? The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has issued an opinion on this issue (perhaps coincidentally, on April 1st), and--surprise, surprise--they've concluded that it was perfectly ok. The OLC makes three arguments: 1) it's not really a war, and the President has broad powers short of war; 2) we're enforcing a Security Council resolution, which gives the President even more authority, in part because he has to uphold the credibility of the Security Council; and 3) the War Powers Resolution permits the President to use force for sixty days without advance approval.
Michael Glennon of the Fletcher School examines the OLC's arguments in the Harvard National Security Journal and finds them wanting on legal and constitutional grounds. More tellingly, he also shows that these justifications are at odds with Obama's own statements before he became President. In 2007, for example, Obama told the Boston Globe that "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involves stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." (Obama used to teach constitutional law, so he's not exactly a tyro on these issues). And back when she was a mere Senator, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "I do not believe that the President can take military action--including any kind of strategic bombing--against Iran without congressional authorization." More strikingly still, State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh has repeatedly argued--as a scholar--against precisely this sort of expansive interpretation of presidential power. But not this time.
At this point in the history of the republic, it should come as no surprise that people working in the Executive Branch tend to think the President has the power to use military force just about any time the he and his advisors deem it necessary or advisable. It is equally unsurprising that politicians and pundits tend to be hypocritical about this issuet: they think the President ought to have broad powers when they agree with the particular use to which it is being put, and they think those powers ought to be limited when they think the President is doing something foolish or unnecessary.
Reasonable people can disagree about just how much authority the Executive Branch ought to have, just as they can also disagree about the course of action the United States and others should have followed with regard to the situation in Libya. But let's be clear about the long-term effects of the de facto authority we are granting every President. It's a messy world out there, and there will always be some trouble somewhere that people will want Uncle Sam to fix. If you give a single individual the authority to decide when to order the world's mightiest military into battle, without having to consult anyone except his own appointed advisors, then you shouldn't be surprised when that mighty military gets used over and over and over.
Over in another corner of the FP media juggernaut, David Bosco has challenged my claim that the humanitarian case for imminent intervention in Libya was weak. According to President Obama, the United States and its allies had to intervene because Qaddafi's forces were about to conduct a massacre that "would stain the conscience of the world." He said there would be "violence on a horrific scale." Drawing on some recent commentary by political scientist Alan Kuperman and journalist Stephen Chapman, I questioned this assumption and said the risk of such a massacre was slight. Bosco challenges me in turn, and says that my assessment is an "epic overreach."
To be clear, I do think rebel lives would have been lost had Qaddafi's force taken Benghazi, and I have no doubt that the Libyan dictator would have dealt harshly with the rebel leaders and anyone who fought to the bitter end. In other words, I'm pretty sure his forces would have murdered some of the rebels and probably some innocent civilians too. But the president seems to have been convinced that Qaddafi was about to unleash genuine mass killings of perhaps as many as 100,000 people, in a city of roughly 650,000 (remember his pointed reference to Benghazi being nearly the size of Charlotte?). Thus, the president's rhetoric strongly implied that tens of thousands of innocent bystanders were about to be ruthlessly slaughtered. That same image was reinforced by media references to the "lessons of Rwanda" that supposedly had shaped the views of some of Obama's advisors.
Yet as I noted in my piece, there were no large-scale massacres in the other cities that the loyalists had recaptured. It is easy to believe that Qaddafi would have gone after the rebel leaders and diehard followers -- whom he undoubtedly regards as traitors -- but turning Benghazi into a ghost town filled with corpses was probably not in his own interest.
The United States started out as thirteen small and vulnerable colonies clinging to the east coast of North America. Over the next century, those original thirteen states expanded all the way across the continent, subjugating or exterminating the native population and wresting Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California from Mexico. It fought a bitter civil war, acquired a modest set of overseas colonies, and came late to both world wars. But since becoming a great power around 1900, it has fought nearly a dozen genuine wars and engaged in countless military interventions.
Yet Americans think of themselves as a peace-loving people, and we certainly don't regard our country as a "warrior nation" or "garrison state." Teddy Roosevelt was probably the last U.S. president who seemed to view war as an activity to be welcomed (he once remarked that "a just war is far better for a man's soul than the most prosperous peace"), and subsequent presidents always portray themselves as going to war with great reluctance, and only as a last resort.
In 2008, Americans elected Barack Obama in part because they thought he would be different than his predecessor on a host of issues, but especially in his approach to the use of armed force. It was clear to nearly everyone that George W. Bush had launched a foolish and unnecessary war in Iraq, and then compounded the error by mismanaging it (and the war in Afghanistan too). So Americans chose a candidate who had opposed Bush's war in Iraq and bring U.S. commitments back in line with our resources. Above all, Americans thought Barack Obama would be a lot more thoughtful about where and how to use force, and that he understood the limits of this crudest of policy tools. The Norwegian Nobel Committee seems to have thought so too, when they awarded him the Peace Prize not for anything he had done, but for what they hoped he might do henceforth.
Yet a mere two years later, we find ourselves back in the fray once again. Since taking office, Barack Obama has escalated U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and launched a new war against Libya. As in Iraq, the real purpose of our intervention is regime change at the point of a gun. At first we hoped that most of the guns would be in the hands of the Europeans, or the hands of the rebel forces arrayed against Qaddafi, but it's increasingly clear that U.S. military forces, CIA operatives and foreign weapons supplies are going to be necessary to finish the job.
Moreover, as Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas and Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune have now shown, the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Although everyone recognizes that Qaddafi is a brutal ruler, his forces did not conduct deliberate, large-scale massacres in any of the cities he has recaptured, and his violent threats to wreak vengeance on Benghazi were directed at those who continued to resist his rule, not at innocent bystanders. There is no question that Qaddafi is a tyrant with few (if any) redemptive qualities, but the threat of a bloodbath that would "stain the conscience of the world" (as Obama put it) was slight.
It remains to be seen whether this latest lurch into war will pay off or not, and whether the United States and its allies will have saved lives or squandered them. But the real question we should be asking is: Why does this keep happening? Why do such different presidents keep doing such similar things? How can an electorate that seemed sick of war in 2008 watch passively while one war escalates in 2009 and another one gets launched in 2011? How can two political parties that are locked in a nasty partisan fight over every nickel in the government budget sit blithely by and watch a president start running up a $100 million/day tab in this latest adventure? What is going on here?
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.