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Our Libyan War: What Position Should Skeptical Conservatives Take?

When Harry S. Truman brought the United States into what everyone knew was a very real war, without congressional approval or consultation, he did it under the guise that it was a UN “police action.” To preserve the independence of South Korea and to reverse the North Korean aggression and its crossing of the 38th Parallel -- the line dividing North and South Korea -- he did it the only way possible: by sending in the boots on the ground. There was an air war, and serious bombing of North Korean positions, but the battles were fought over an endless series of hills and went on for years. The war only came to an actual end when President Dwight D. Eisenhower negotiated the “truce” we still are living with, and arranged repatriation of POWs.

What President Barack Obama did in his speech to the nation, however, is an entirely different approach. I’m not sure, as is our PJM colleague Victor Davis Hanson, that the war is a bad idea. I think that there were numerous reasons that can be established that make our intervention necessary. These include the distinct possibility that if Qadaffi were to win,  he would do as he promised -- exact the very retribution he promised against the rebels and the cities in which they were prominent, thereby carrying out a massacre that might only be paralleled by the massacre carried out by the late Syrian dictator Hafez-el Assad in Hama in 1982. And Qadaffi might very well have resumed the kind of terrorist attacks against Western targets that he has done in the past, such as bringing down airplanes as he had done in Lockerbie.

I do not believe, however, that the uncritical celebration of Obama that has been the response by Bill Kristol is also warranted. Kristol argues that “the United States really should have the backs of those fighting for freedom. How willing the president is to overcome his prejudices and to reorient his whole attitude toward the Middle East and the world, we don’t know. But we can hope for change.” Kristol is certain that the president won’t “cut and run,” that he understands that this is a fight the United States has to win.

Therefore Kristol believes conservatives must cease all criticism of the problems inherent in Obama’s approach, and simply “give war a chance.” But if we cease criticism, and find that the president is failing to implement the kind of measures that assure Qadaffi’s defeat, how is pointing out the ambivalence and contradictions in the president’s policy a bad thing? If the Republican Party is today the “party of freedom,” as Kristol thinks it is, then why is it harmful to point out the major pitfalls facing the president as he tries to destroy Qadaffi without supporting regime change in Libya and without taking the kind of measures that will guarantee the outcome?

In the very same speech that led Kristol to dub our President “Barack H. Reagan,” President Obama also said that he was ruling out the entry into the conflict of American troops. By making that announcement, Obama saw to it that he was closing off a step that, if all else fails, might be a step that he has to reluctantly take.

In his letter to Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Harry Reid, Florida’s new Senator Marco Rubio rightfully points out that a bi-partisan resolution by the Senate authorizing the use of force in Libya to oust Qadaffi is necessary. Rubio writes that “this resolution should also state that removing Muammar Qaddafi from power is in our national interest and therefore should authorize the President to accomplish this goal. To that end, the resolution should urge the President to immediately recognize the Interim Transitional National Council as the legitimate government in Libya.”

To state this goal as that of the nation would proclaim it as a bipartisan policy of the people at large, not simply as an American war that is illegal and unconstitutional, as Sen. Rand Paul argued in his own response. Paul argued using the logic of the Old Right of the 1940s and 50s, as well as that of today’s anti-war paleoconservatives,  grouped around the American Conservative magazine. Paul cites Defense Secretary Gates’ now famous statement that the United States had no “vital interest” in Libya; a statement eerily similar to that made on the eve of the Korean War by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who told Congress that Korea was “outside” of the U.S. defense perimeter, thereby leading Kim Il-Sung to believe that aggression by his regime would meet with no opposition.