That indigenous forces backed by Western military power could overthrow an odious unpopular regime backed by a second-rate military ought to come as no surprise. That was, after all, exactly what the Bush Administration did in Afghanistan.
In fact, operationally, the fall of Kabul looks a lot like the fall of Tripoli. As we now know, toppling the Taliban was not the last chapter in U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, nor was it a precedent for the “future way of war” (in and out with a minimal footprint) as it was much predicted at the time.
As with Afghanistan, perils in Libya may be far from over. The nation is awash with weapons not controlled by the government. Remnants of the old regime may continue to go on fighting. Extremists may yet make their presence felt.
So too the Obama Administration ought not to look to Libya as a model for exercising global leadership or safeguarding U.S. vital national interests. Getting rid of Qadhafi was not and should not have been the only objective, and it should not be the sole criterion for judging the success of the policy. We are glad that Qadhafi is gone, and we praise the tactical success of U.S. and NATO arms. But the larger questions, for future reference and precedent, still remain.
We should also reserve final judgment of the policy until we see what happens next in Libya. But regardless of how things turn out, there are three truisms worth remembering:
- “Right to Protect” is not right. Often called “R2P,” this the notion that when governments can’t protect (or worse, oppress) their own citizens, other nations have an “obligation” to intervene. The R2P banner was waved over the Libya operation. R2P is the wrong standard by which to decide if U.S. military forces should be sent in harm’s way. A commitment to R2P could be an even greater threat to sovereignty, freedom, peace, and security than the average dictator. Nations are like individuals: They act best when they act from a sense personal responsibility rather than the whim of internationalist doctrines. The use of force always ought to be a judgment by a free, sovereign people based on the balance of what is right and what is in the nation’s best interest.
- Congress ought to be consulted. When nations enter armed conflicts, their citizens ought to be informed. Time permitting, it is always prudent for the President to ask for a resolution of support from Congress. The White House took weeks negotiating with the U.N. Security Council for a resolution to support intervention in Libya. The President had more than enough time to consult with Congress.
- The U.S. can’t outsource its security. Leading from behind might be all very well if U.S. vital interests are not on the line. The U.S. must, however, have both the capacity and the will to safeguard its interests when threats significantly endanger the safety, freedom, and prosperity of Americans. While a “light” touch might be suitable for dealing with leaders like Qadhafi (who at the time represented a minimal direct threat to the U.S.), such a strategy won’t serve the U.S. well against threats such as Iran or battlefields such as Afghanistan, where the Administration’s reluctance to act decisively has been widely interpreted as weakness. The U.S. cannot defend itself on the cheap.
In many ways, the President’s use of force in Libya sets poor precedents for how the U.S. should use military power to deal with the dangers of the 21st century. That is a truism that should not be lost—even as we celebrate the demise of one of the world’s worst dictators.