The February 28-29 New York Times gave us more than we previously knew, about the Obama White House’s 2011 decision to go in with French and UK in bombing Libya. If the fact-checkers are correct, our eyes have reason to pop out of our heads. Authors Jo Becker and Scott Shane document the heated moment, signaling that within the administration, good brains got together but went for a poison pill. It appears the secretary of state drew the team in the direction of targeted bombing.
This was no easy decision, and good discussions came out on both sides. The prevailing argument was the United Nations’ recently unveiled practice of “R2P,” “Responsibility to Protect.” Civilian populations, after all, were under direct and explicit threats from a madman, Muammar Khadafi.
Then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called this “the 51-49 Decision,” with Secretary Clinton casting the swing vote.
This was not a strategic or moral failure, just the best guess under stressful conditions. Unfortunately, it drew U.S. foreign policy once again into a cul-de-sac of unintended consequences, aka “Mission Creep.” Libya went to hell (might have done so in any case) and now is a threat to itself, to Europe, and even to U.S. security interests with its new status as a playground and R&R stop for terrorists.
No political party in America is immune to myopic actions, which create more problems than they solve. Democratic and Republican administrations both used deceit and ill-aimed firepower in prosecuting a Vietnam War that had no hope of a useful outcome. Our political parties have led us to lose-lose outcomes, harming many and helping few.
The paradigms and “table-top exercises” never worked and still don’t. America – the nation of pragmatism – needs new models, not to avoid the responsibilities of being Superpower, but to employing them to successful outcomes.
In the lead-up to the George W. Bush Administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, White House cronies were suckered by the late Ahmed Chalabi, who gave neo-cons the shoddy narrative they craved, inveigling American force to work a regime change which led only from tragedy to greater tragedy.
American credibility in the Arab world and elsewhere suffered blows which may take a generation or more to overcome – if ever. American political parties have a pretty bad records of taking the first charlatan who comes along and pitting its might to the whims of manipulative Rasputins.
Likewise, in spring of 2011, according to Becker and Shane, Libyan smooth talker Mahmoud Jibril (later the prime minister du jour) convinced the Secretary of State in a hotel room in Paris to put her considerable weight into an ill-fated intervention in Libya. We were duped into a group military action with France and the United Kingdom, which led to two months of hostilities in the North African nation, then under the heels of a perverted dictator, now engulfed in a chaos with no apparent end.
The action violated the War Powers Act by a few days, then got lucky as Khadafi was pulled out of a cement tunnel by enraged rebels, sodomized by a bayonet and then killed. The point of the 1973War Powers Act was to condition undeclared wars on Congressional approval after 60 days. There is a big “What if” tied to the Libya action had it gone much beyond the 60 day limit.
The motivation for the Libya intervention was laudable. The flaw was the failure to consider fully the outcome. Anyone can make mistakes, but those who lead us and innocent populations to distress should be held to account for their miscalculations, especially when they seek continued authority to do so.
The Senate’s approval of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq was not unique to any individual or party. “The Record” is and should be an unforgiving mirror to the successes and failures of America’s decision makers — in this instance, the Senate. Individuals making misjudgments may be seen favorably for their motives, but mistakes and miscalculations get the full light of the sun in a democracy and system of accountability.
We are not talking here about the banalities of “hawkishness” and “dovishness,” since each circumstance is unique. Saying that a Superpower can or should abdicate its role in the world is too facile a generalization. But nor can one country, no matter how powerful, solve the problems of all with short-term actions. The art and science of policy is to make the best judgment possible, with the information given at a particular juncture of crisis.
Engaging in the Libya conflict in 2011 (without any plan for an outcome) was not morally or even tactically “wrong.” However, events have gone against American interests – and also, by the way, the beleaguered populations of the current Libya which is a threat to itself, to Europe, and sooner or later to American direct security interests as well.
Good people can make bad decisions, and the Libya caper unfortunately was a bad one. French President Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Blair got the Obama White House into a military action in Libya which indeed unseated Muammar Khadafi, but which alas did no good for the region or for attempts to restrain chaos and terrorism, both of which run rife in Libya today.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice opposed the action, but was outmaneuvered by Secretary Clinton. Both were sincere in their convictions, both armed with solid arguments. One had to be right in the outcome, the other wrong.
Infallibility, omniscience, are not offered to policy leaders in times of crisis. Colin Powell said plainly enough, Engage in conflict only with an exit plan and with overwhelming force. Better, of course, not to enter conflict at all if it is avoidable. The records of both political parties in America have misled us too often, and have taken us to perilous scenarios unwittingly betraying our national values. Experience is not wisdom. We need greater thought, with the nuance both parties have failed to display, as we enter twenty-first-century challenges.
Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
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