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Obama's war of choice
In Libya, the president fails to learn the lessons of Kosovo — and unintentionally encourages more violent Arab revolts
Daniel Larison
Daniel Larison
T

he U.S. launched a new war of choice on Saturday with the first American missile strikes on targets in Libya. Following President Obama’s unexpected about-face last week, the administration went from expressing caution and skepticism about entering Libya’s civil war to a strong endorsement of a broad U.N. mandate to use force to protect civilians from Moammar Gadhafi's forces. After minimal consultation with some members of Congress, no debate or vote on Capitol Hill, and no meaningful public discussion of the possible consequences and dangers of effectively siding with Libya’s rebels, the administration has since made contradictory statements about the goals and extent of the mission, which has contributed to general confusion at home and abroad about what, if anything, U.S. strategy in Libya might be.

Obama has committed U.S. forces to military action that violates every rule of the so-called Powell Doctrine, and he has done so arbitrarily, without authorization from Congress, despite having stated as a candidate that such action is unconstitutional. No national security interests are at stake in Libya, there is nothing like a public consensus in support of the mission, the U.S. is not using overwhelming force, nor is it using force as a last resort. There are no clear goals, and what goals we can discern (such as protecting civilians) seem poorly matched to the military tactics of a no-fly zone and airstrikes that the U.S. and allies are employing. The Libyan war combines executive usurpation of war powers with ill-considered humanitarian interventionist goals, in a sort of hybrid of the worst traits of the wars of George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

The U.S. and NATO were extremely lucky in the way the Kosovo conflict ended, and it is not a wise strategy to simply hope for more good luck.

Using the initial Arab League call for a no-fly zone as political cover, France, Britain, and the United States supported U.N. Resolution 1973 while all of the other major and rising powers abstained. Almost immediately, the illusion of a broad international consensus has started to evaporate, and the endorsement of the Arab League is now in question. The hope of transferring control of military operations from the U.S. to NATO command and control remains fraught with difficulty as France does not wish to operate through NATO, Turkey and Germany oppose military action against Libya, and Italy has threatened to withdraw the use of its bases if the operation is not run by NATO.

The administration has been so eager not to be seen as making the mistakes of the Iraq War that it has opted instead for a different misguided model, namely that of the illegal war in Kosovo 12 years ago. As the U.S. and NATO did then, Western governments have once again chosen to side with a rebel movement in a purely internal conflict inside a sovereign state that had committed and threatened no acts of aggression against any other state. In both cases, Western governments took it upon themselves to fulfill the “responsibility to protect,” launching attacks on government forces to prevent anticipated mass killings and expulsion. The rush to intervene in Serbia and Libya relied on exaggerating the humanitarian crisis and treating ugly, low-intensity civil wars as Rwanda-like disasters in the making.

When NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1999, it did so at a time when the U.S. was not fighting any other wars and America was at the height of its post-Cold War strength. But today, intervention in Libya is even worse than Kosovo in that it has even weaker American public support, more limited international backing, and takes place at a time when U.S. military forces are stretched thin and European allied militaries are facing significant spending cuts.

What most advocates of Libya intervention also forget or fail to mention is that the NATO campaign in Kosovo precipitated a contingency plan of mass expulsions that forced hundreds of thousands to flee, and it was only after two and a half months of controversial bombing and civilian casualties that Slobodan Milosevic finally relented. Unlike Milosevic, Gadhafi has every reason to fight on, and even the threat of introducing ground forces may not cause him to capitulate.

In addition to potentially intensifying and worsening the conflicts they are meant to halt, interventions in these situations threaten to blur exceptional humanitarian disasters together with common civil wars, and they create incentives for rebel movements to provoke atrocities to win outside support. On humanitarian interventionist terms, Western involvement in Libya potentially distracts us from larger, preventable disasters, such as the humanitarian and political crisis that is unfolding in West Africa. Intervening in Libya could have the effect of encouraging political opposition movements to see armed rebellion as the fastest way to gain outside backing against their government.

As Arab protest movements elsewhere are encountering brutal repression, they may conclude that violent resistance is the only way to get the attention of Western governments. Now that the U.S. and our allies have made the most direct commitment of support to the one protest movement that has become an armed rebellion, we are not only creating the expectation that we will help other rebel movements in the region, which could encourage failed, bloody uprisings, but we may also find that we are hastening the destabilization of allied regimes that the U.S. does not want to see fall.

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