Flawed Lessons from Libya

August 27, 2011

There has been a lot of commentary on lessons of the Libya intervention since the tide began to shift dramatically in favor of the rebels last week. I’m on the side of supporting the intervention. It hasn’t been perfect, but it was the necessary policy response to effectively ensure the protection of civilians in Libya.

While there are certainly valid critiques that can (and have) been put forward from both sides of the aisle, not all critiques are equal. I couldn’t help but be extremely disappointed with a recent piece by Christopher Preble that was posted on the CATO Institute’s blog. Preble’s piece misrepresents information and puts forward several flawed arguments.

Flawed Argument #1: U.S. as World’s Government

…the Libya story will be fit into a familiar narrative, one in which the United States is portrayed as uniquely suited to be the world’s government, with the U.S. military as a global constabulary, responding to threats large and small, distant and proximate. The Libyan intervention, according to the defenders of the status quo, demonstrates that there is no alternative.

The United States isn’t uniquely situated to be the world’s government and it certainly isn’t governing the Libyans. If that was the case or the objective, the Libya intervention would look differently. However, the U.S. and several other world powers do have the military expertise necessary to run an effective intervention to protect civilians in Libya. This is a key difference.

Preble tries to describe the U.S participation in the Libya as the “status quo” when that is anything but the case. In fact, members of Congress like Senator John McCain (R-AZ) have been critical of the Obama Administration because the United States isn’t playing its typical role. Like it or not (and I’m a bit critical of the new “lead from behind” strategy), an alternative has actually been developed. This alternative has involved gaining support and participation from regional bodies like the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council and international institutions like the United Nations. Further, the NATO mission has been led by France and the United Kingdom, not the United States as Preble implies. By pursuing an alternative to the status quo, the United States seems to be doing exactly what Preble might suggest.

Flawed Argument #2: Because the U.S. Intervened in Libya, It will have to Intervene Everywhere

And what does U.S. intervention in Libya signal for the future of U.S. foreign policy? Will U.S. warplanes soon be flying over Syria? Will U.S. bombs soon be raining down on Iran? Or on any other country that has the misfortune of being ruled by an incompetent or venal government? Once, the answer was clearly no; now we just don’t know.

Interestingly Iran and Syria would be two of the first countries on the list if one were to ask a similarly framed question based on the military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the U.S. hasn’t invaded either Iran or Syria simply on the basis of the fact we’ve been at war elsewhere in the Middle East for years.

Preble also misses the objective of the military intervention in Libya. It wasn’t about an “incompetent or venal government” as he suggests. It was about the fact that Qaddafi was slaughtering his own people and the credible fear that a massacre was imminent in Benghazi.

The bottom line is that the United States never does anything consistently, especially intervention for the protection of civilians. We didn’t intervene in Rwanda or Darfur. There’s no reason to think that the United States would suddenly start bombing any other country, particularly on the basis of a foreign government’s incompetence. Even specific to civilian protection, the situation in Cote d’Ivoire escalated (severely threatening civilians there) around the same time as Libya. The United States didn’t intervene.

Moreover, in response to the extreme use of force being used now against civilians in Sudan’s South Kordofan region and Syria, I’d argue that a military intervention would be an ineffective and counterproductive means of protecting civilians at risk. Military intervention is certainly a tool in the tool box, but it should be used only as a last resort (in accordance with the responsibility to protect doctrine) and when it can successfully fulfill a protection mandate. Experience and the sound application of policy tools indicate that military intervention to protect civilians will be a rare occurrence.

Flawed Argument #3: American People Didn’t Support Intervention

Most Americans disagree. Such an approach to the world has taxed our military, and overburdened U.S. taxpayers, with no obvious benefit to U.S. national security.

First of all, 70% of Americans supported the military intervention in Libya at the time it was launched. Preble has argued that–in accordance with the Powell doctrine–America shouldn’t use military force unless there is public support. At the time of the intervention, Obama clearly had the green light in this regard. Public opinion has waned since, but the most recent poll conducted indicates that a majority of Americans (54%) favor the intervention.

In terms of taxing the military and overburdening the U.S. taxpayer, Preble unfairly lumps the limited Libya intervention in with the much more expansive missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current price tag for Libya is $1.1 billion. This amount is less than what the U.S. spends during one week in Afghanistan. It’s also only 0.007% of the GDP of the United States in 2010. This is hardly the “burden” Preble makes it out to be.

(Although this point is certainly debatable, I believe strongly that the Libya intervention was in our national interest. More on that here.)

Flawed Argument #4: Democratic Transformation is Only Successful without External Assistance

In his classic text “A Few Words on Nonintervention” Mill explained that the subjects of an oppressive ruler must achieve freedom for themselves. And he worried “that if they have not sufficient love of liberty to be able to wrest it from merely domestic oppressors, the liberty which is bestowed on them by other hands than their own, will have nothing real, nothing permanent.”

Clearly, Preble has forgotten the history of the United States in making the assertion that liberty is not permanent or real if assistance is provided to those fighting oppression. During the American Revolution, France, Spain and the Netherlands all provided support to the colonists in their struggle for freedom. Scholars argue that without the support from the French, the war would not have been won. Democratic transformation can succeed with the help of external actors and oftentimes this assistance is necessary. The real question is how the international community can best support the Libyan people.


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