When in November 1942 the British Army broke and routed Rommel, and sent him fleeing through Libya, Winston Churchill recognized that it was not the end of the war. But it was, he said, the end of the beginning.
We are at the same place in Libya today – not at the end, merely at the end of the beginning. If Libya comes to be dominated by Islamists, or falls into chaos, the destruction of Gaddafi’s tyranny will evoke less satisfaction. But as Churchill said in another connection, the chains of consequence are long, and even if things go poorly in Libya in the future, that does not mean the West should simply have supported Gaddafi as the alternative.
Instead of focusing on the unknown – for we do not know what will come next in Libya – and trying to judge the war by its aftermath, we should give thought to the known, and judge the war by the consequences it has already produced. Here, therefore, are the top ten errors of President Obama’s conduct of the Libyan War to date.
1. Diminish Congress
The President has the power to commit U.S. forces to combat. But if the situation allows, it is prudent for the President to receive the explicit support of Congress and the nation before taking military action. Yet the Senate’s March 1 vote in favor of a “no-fly zone” over Libya was produced by parliamentary slight of hand. The result was that in June, Republicans in the House came within an ace of voting for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from the conflict. That would have been a mistake, but it shows the distrust that Obama’s approach produced, distrust that will linger long after Gaddafi is gone.
2. Defend the War Powers Resolution
Paradoxically, while opposing congressional efforts to force a withdrawal, the Obama Administration argued that it was important to respect the War Powers Resolution. Passed in 1973 over the veto of President Richard Nixon, this Resolution forbids the U.S. armed forces from acting for more than 60 days without congressional authorization. Many legal experts have correctly argued that the Resolution is unconstitutional, and some presidents have simply ignored it, as President Clinton did in Kosovo in 1999. Yet the Obama Administration, in a slippery move that gave us the worst of both worlds, first accepted the constitutionality of the Resolution, and then argued that U.S. involvement in Libya was so limited that the Resolution did not apply.
3. Rely On, Then Trick, the U.N. Security Council
The Obama Administration badly wanted to act with the approval of the U.N. Security Council. So on March 17, it got, by a vote of 10-0 with five abstentions, a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary measures … to protect civilians.” It then immediately reinterpreted this resolution into approval for NATO to become the rebel air force. The next time the Administration wants to do something through the U.N. – say, on Syria – it will find Russia and China a lot less eager to abstain on resolutions that might be subject to creative reinterpretation. Relying on the U.N. carries immense inherent costs: tricking the U.N. to get what you want just increases those costs.
4. Legitimize the International Criminal Court
Before its March resolution, the U.N. Security Council in February, with the approval of the U.S., adopted resolution 1970, which referred Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court. The ICC is intensely controversial in the U.S., which is not party to the Rome Statute that created the court. Yet the Administration has now created the expectation that in future crises, the U.S. will resort to the ICC. That both legitimizes the ICC and encourages future dictators to fight to the death, instead of choosing the quicker and more humane option of exile.
5. Base Intervention on the “Responsibility to Protect”
President Obama declared that the U.S. had to act against Gaddafi because the Libyan leader had “forfeited his responsibility to protect his own citizens.” Everyone agrees – well, everyone except the London School of Economics, the Scottish Government, and Gordon Brown, among many others – that Gaddafi was a disgusting tyrant who deserved the worst the world had to offer. But the doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” though widely trumpeted on the left, is a bad basis for U.S. policy, now and in the future: it is inherently selective, it creates an excuse to ignore Congress, and it ignores the basic fact that the armed forces of the U.S. exist to defend and advance American interests, not to intervene in the infinity of humanitarian crises around the world.
6. Flip Flop on Tyranny
In 2003, frightened by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Gaddafi gave up his WMDs, which turned out to be far more extensive than the West had suspected. The U.S., in return, agreed to treat him as respectable, a policy that Obama continued until it became inconvenient. Giving tyrants an entry pass back into the international state system is fundamentally wrong, because the problem with the tyrants is not their weapons, but the nature of their regimes. The Administration has proved to be capable neither of holding to a coldly realistic deal with Gaddafi, nor – which would have been far better – of recognizing him from the beginning for the tyrant he was.
7. Go Slow So You Don’t Intimidate Anyone
Just as the example of the Iraq War intimidated Gaddafi, a rapid defeat of Gaddafi would have intimidated other enemies in the Middle East, notably Syria and Iran. By doing the bare minimum in Libya, the Administration has massively reduced the potential demonstration effect of the conflict. It helped get rid of Gaddafi, but it did so in a way that will generate a minimum of gains elsewhere in the region.
8. Show the Iranians How They Can Win
Far from intimidating Iran, the Libyan conflict has shown the Iranians, yet again, how to beat the West. Iran will be reinforced in its knowledge that the U.S. is not likely to act without U.N. approval, and in the absence of open, massive, obvious repression. The lesson for Iran is obvious: keep the U.N. ball in play, repress in secret, put as much of the machinery of their state near civilians as possible, and build up stockpiles of civilian vehicles, small arms, and gasoline. If push does come to shove, Iran will play it long and rely on most of NATO to do nothing while the U.S. wastes time ‘leading from behind.’
9. Emphasize NATO’s Weaknesses
The Libyan war has been a disaster for NATO. It has demonstrated that even Britain and France lack the ability to carry on military operations against a third tier power across a narrow ocean from NATO’s heartland. The idea that most of NATO would have anything to offer in a war with Iran is a fantasy. Worse, the war has shown that Germany is pacifist, and will not vote in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing even the humanitarian use of force. NATO was created in part as a mechanism to allow German rearmament as part of a Western security alliance: with Germany not willing to play any constructive role, NATO has lost a large chunk of its historic core.
10. Rely on Hope as a Strategy
There is nothing more dangerous than luck: it is easily mistaken for skill. The Administration embarked on the Libyan war in the delusive belief that the war would be over in a few days. It was fortunate in the weakness of its enemy, and is now musing that Libya offers a template for the wise use of American power. That is a dangerous error. Using force is a serious business, and there is a word for the belief that it can be made easy: hubris. It would be foolish to rely on future wars finishing as quickly and with as little American leadership as the first part of this one did. Winning is always better than losing, but hoping for luck is not a strategy.