Libya: The Genesis of a Bad Idea

The president spoke Monday night to clarify our intervention in Libya. Instead he made things worse, and could not explain the mission (are we/are we not after Qaddafi?), the methodology to achieve it (are we in a no-fly-zone or are we bombing ground targets essential to save the rebels?), and the desired outcome (who are the “rebels,” what do we wish from them, and are they better than Qaddafi?). Indeed, after almost two weeks, these questions still have not been asked much less answered.

So the omissions pose the question: how did Obama, the archetype war critic, find himself bombing—in optional and preemptive fashion, and without congressional authority — an Arab Muslim oil-exporting country, and one that posed no immediate threat to American national security, despite being governed by a monster who, nevertheless, had been recently courted by Western intellectuals, academics, universities, and diplomats?

Unfortunately, Obama has no principled or strategically logical foreign policy. So it is mostly loud declarations that he is not George Bush and making things up ad hoc as he goes along. Here, I think, is what happened with Libya.

Nearly the entire Middle East (save the bugaboo democracies in Iraq and Israel) erupts three months ago against a potpourri of oligarchy, theocracy, dictatorship, monarchy, and military juntas — the common thread being anger against corrupt, kleptocratic dynasties that have ruined the economies of what should be otherwise rich countries and denied basic freedoms.

Obama is confused and has no typology of these uprisings, except a crude binary. On the one hand, some of the demonstrations are against pro-American strongmen and thus can be channeled into “the hope and change,” “we are the change we’ve been waiting for” left rhetoric. He thus piggy-backed (albeit belatedly as is his "vote-present" style) onto Tunisia and Egypt. We endorsed the reformers only when we knew they were going to win and they seemed to reflect liberal “change” against Cold War-like, American client SOBs.

Some others rebellions, however, were clearly aimed at anti-American pseudo-revolutionary regimes and so they have prompted a very different response from Obama. In the case of Iran, he apologized for 1953 and promised not to “meddle”; initially with Qaddafi he was silent. And he still practices “outreach” with the Syrian “reformer” Assad.

We should, then, have expected Obama to stay out of Libya, the way he has Iran and Syria, and concentrated largely in expressing support for rebellions against pro-American juntas — albeit only once he was assured they might win. But a perfect storm of events sucked him instead into Libya in a way he never imagined:

1) The Europeans (mostly the British and French) suddenly wanted to intervene in Libya, in a manner they had not amid protests elsewhere. Why? Oil, for one reason. Europe imports 10% of their oil and gas from Libya at very little transportation cost, and so it was deemed wise to be on the right side of the most likely government to be. Proximity, of course. Libya is a Mediterranean country with a tiny population of 6.5 million, as easy to operate militarily against, as Afghanistan and Iraq are difficult — and one that by such proximity might in extremis pose problems for Europe. More importantly, the “rebels” seemed like they would capture Tripoli within just a few days. So the French and British sensed an opportunity to accomplish a number of things at very little cost by declaring an intent to intervene militarily: they could ensure continued oil contracts with the likely winners under the guise of humanitarian anguish; they could avoid a drawn-out war by nudging the rebels over the top; and they could put the U.S. in an untenable position. By declaring their humanitarian fides and getting ahead of America in public concern over “genocide,” the Europeans would force the U.S. hand: if Obama did not act, he would look weak and de facto cede traditional American moral leadership to an ascendant Europe; if Obama did, he would do so in response to European initiatives, and end up with the worst of both worlds: shamed into providing 90% of the muscle while ceding the credit of a “sure” win to Sarkozy and Cameron. Europe, then, read Obama perfectly.

2) The “rebels.” No one in either the U.S. or Europe had much idea who or what the “rebels” were. But they assumed that because similar protestors had won easily in Egypt and Tunisia, and had appealed to the “Facebook” and “Twitter” crowd, these rebels likewise were surely ascendant Westernized Banisadr-like socialists. If Obama had been tardy in expressing support for protestors in Egypt and Tunisia, he was now feeling the heat a third time in Libya — especially as Qaddafi turned his guns against those who spoke impassioned English on CNN and the BBC.