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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.

I happen to disagree with Paul’s anti-interventionist position. Nevertheless, he raises legitimate questions that have to be faced, when he argues that:

Intervening in a civil war in a tribal society in which our government admits we have no vital interests to help people we do not know, simply does not make any sense. Libyan society is complicated, and we simply do not know enough about the potential outcomes or leaders to know if this will end up in the interests of the United States, or if we are in fact helping to install a radical Islamic government in the place of a secular dictatorship.

To close off criticism, as Kristol suggests, is to make it a certainty that problems like those Paul points to will not be addressed, until it might be too late. Today, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates told Congress that there would be no American troops in Libya, “as long as I’m Secretary of Defense.” At the same time, he declined to comment on the news reports that the president has authorized the CIA to enter Libya, to advise the rebels and to gather intelligence of airstrikes.

Undoubtedly, the comment made by Rep. Howard P. McKeon, (R. Ca.) that “history has demonstrated that an entrenched enemy like the Libyan regime can be resilient to airpower,” is accurate.  McKeon noted that “if Qaddafi does not face an imminent military defeat or refuses to abdicate, it seems that NATO could be expected to support decade-long no-fly zone enforcement like the one over Iraq in the 1990s.” And, eventually, although he did not make this point, ground troops might be the only step that could be taken to make the military intervention successful.

If so, who will provide them -- the French? To date all the powers who back the military effort seem to be hoping that it will not come to this, that air strikes, CIA advisors and a no-fly zone that already has been successful will do the job. But the latest news reports indicate that rebels are still in retreat, and that Qadaffi’s forces are advancing and have a great deal of fight left in them. Indeed, Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen were testifying, the news report notes,  just as “Colonel Qaddafi’ s forces pushed the rebels into a panicked retreat, and recaptured towns they had lost just days ago because of allied airstrikes.”

Moreover, although Gates told the congressional panel that the intervention would be limited and would end in Qadaffi’s successful removal from power -- a goal the President contradicted by arguing that the intervention was only one of a humanitarian nature -- Gates would not say what would be done if Qadaffi is still in power.

Bill Kristol may say that he supports the war because it is one being fought for regime change, but according to Gates, “We tried regime change before, and sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it’s taken 10 years.” Clearly, Gates is ruling that out as a reason for the intervention. The Senate has not as yet passed Marco Rubio’s proposed resolution, and the chances that divided Republicans and peace-minded Democrats will support it is, I believe, rather slim at present.

Others have pointed out that even if President Obama gives the order to arm the rebels, the kind of military hardware they would be given takes months of training to use, and the current rag-tag rebel army would not be equipped to use them effectively and therefore would be unable to win victories against Qadaffi’s forces even with these arms.

That leaves us with the question it seems few are as yet willing to advance. If air strikes are not working, and armed rebels still are retreating, clearly the only way to succeed in pushing Qadaffi out  -- it is not enough for Obama to say “Qadaffi must go” -- will be some nation’s ground troops. This is not the '90s, when our Bosnia intervention could be handled by NATO airstrikes in Belgrade.

Yes, Mullen and Gates have told Congress that other nations have troops, and they can handle it. I’ll see it when I believe it. The only superpower with the ability and the amount of troops needed for success is the United States. But our president has ruled that out. If he changes his mind, which he may well have to if it seems failure is imminent, he will be in the position of again reversing a promise he made a short time ago. Secretary Gates would most probably resign than agree to be in charge of implementing such a step, and new opposition would arise in the country at large.

I hope our mission is successful, that the current level of intervention leads to a quick defeat for Qadaffi and his regime, and that a new government dedicated to a democratic Libya comes into being. But I wouldn’t count on it.