Stumbling into the Libyan War

We again find ourselves at war with a Middle Eastern dictator. How did it get here? Last month, the Libyan people rebelled against their 42-year oppressor, Col. Muammar Gaddafi. The rebels liberated most of their country and were on the verge of overthrowing their tyrant; all that was needed was a bit of air support for the final push into the capital Tripoli. But we waited more than a month for France, Britain, the UN, and the Arab League to lead. In that time, Gaddafi used his air force to crush the uprising, reclaim the liberated territory, and encircle the rebels in the city of Benghazi.

So in the eleventh hour we have decided to bomb Libya.

What is the mission? What are our objectives? The public is in the dark. Barely anyone has mentioned how Congress hasn’t debated or authorized any of this. Secretary of State Clinton is reportedly furious with the administration’s dithering. Vice President Biden, the purported foreign policy expert, is missing in action. And President Obama is away touring South America.  The whole scene is very strange and a bit surreal. We have stumbled into war and it feels as though the intervention is both belated and haphazardly rushed at the same time. I can’t recall anything quite like this.

There is no doubt Muammar Gaddafi should go. He has for decades killed Americans and brutalized millions. His regime has 1) repeatedly been aggressive against neighbors; 2) sheltered internationally wanted terrorists; 3) violated non-proliferation treaties and pursued illicit unconventional weapons; 4) committed gross human rights violations on a massive scale -- the four reasons, according to international law, that a state forfeits its sovereignty. Gaddafi’s downfall would be a deliverance.

Furthermore, the issue is not so much about justifying our present actions by citing Gaddafi’s past actions, but rather acknowledging the fact that, should Gaddafi survive this confrontation with the West, he will emerge an international outlaw as emboldened as ever. Libya will become chief global pariah -- the North Korea of North Africa.

But overthrowing Gaddafi does not seem to be the objective. It’s unclear. At the beginning of the month, weeks before our intervention, President Obama declared Gaddafi must step down. Now that we have intervened, Obama has said, “We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal -- specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.” Well, protection from whom? Gaddafi, of course. The war strategy seems an inherent contradiction.

Hours after bombing Gaddafi’s compound the Pentagon released a statement saying we didn’t really mean it. “At this particular point, I can guarantee that he’s not on a targeting list,” Vice Admiral Bill Gortney said of Gaddafi. So we’re not going to kill Gaddafi? Gortney’s response: “If he happens to be in a place -- if he’s inspecting a surface-to-air missile site, [and] we don’t have any idea that he’s there or not -- then, yeah.” Secretary of Defense Gates has called the idea of targeting Gaddafi “unwise.”  Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the war is “not about seeing [Gaddafi go]” but “about supporting the United Nations resolution which talked about eliminating his ability to kill his own people.” This comes weeks after the national intelligence director predicted Gaddafi’s victory over the rebels.

So we are going after Gaddafi’s residences but not Gaddafi himself. This whole thing is bizarre.