To Act or Not to Act? Libya is the Question

BY Glen Tschirgi
5 years, 7 months ago

Ross Douthat sets forth a thin, but significant piece about the ongoing debate over military intervention in Libya.

First, he remarks that there is surprisingly little residual reluctance to take action in a Arab-muslim nation such as Libya after the U.S. experience in Iraq.

Five years ago, in the darkest days of insurgent violence and Sunni-Shia strife, it seemed as if the Iraq war would shadow American foreign policy for decades, frightening a generation’s worth of statesmen away from using military force. Where there had once been a “Vietnam syndrome,” now there would be an “Iraq syndrome,” inspiring harrowing flashbacks to Baghdad and Falluja in any American politician contemplating an intervention overseas.

But in today’s Washington, no such syndrome is in evidence. Indeed, it’s striking how quickly the bipartisan coalition that backed the Iraq invasion has reassembled itself to urge President Obama to use military force against Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Next he cites the surprising diversity and number of people calling for some form of intervention in Libya.

Now a similar chorus is arguing that the United States should intervene directly in Libya’s civil war: with a no-flight zone, certainly, and perhaps with arms for the Libyan rebels and air strikes against Qaddafi’s military as well. As in 2002 and 2003, the case for intervention is being pushed by a broad cross-section of politicians and opinion-makers, from Bill Clinton to Bill Kristol, Fareed Zakaria to Newt Gingrich, John Kerry to Christopher Hitchens.

Douthat, however, believes that American leadership has not learned the clear lessons of Iraq.   He explains:

In reality, there are lessons from our years of failure in Iraq that can be applied to an air war over Libya as easily as to a full-scale invasion or counterinsurgency. Indeed, they can be applied to any intervention — however limited its aims, multilateral its means, and competent its commanders.

One is that the United States shouldn’t go to war unless it has a plan not only for the initial military action, but also for the day afterward, and the day after that. Another is that the United States shouldn’t go to war without a detailed understanding of the country we’re entering, and the forces we’re likely to empower.

Moreover, even with the best-laid plans, warfare is always a uniquely high-risk enterprise — which means that the burden of proof should generally rest with hawks rather than with doves, and seven reasonable-sounding reasons for intervening may not add up to a single convincing case for war.

Are these really the lessons to be learned from the war in Iraq?

I don’t think so.

First, Douthat believes that no military action, no matter how small, should be undertaken unless there is detailed planning for every, possible contingency.  This is palpable nonsense.  Clearly there are occasions when military action can be taken– indeed must be taken at times– without volumes of risk assessment and contingency planning.   To harp on just one, the Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden clearly does not require obsessive planning for each and every use of force.  As posted by the Captain before, the only planning needed for dealing with pirates is whether to use an additional drum of ammunition in dispatching them.

Advanced, detailed planning of the sort envisioned by Douthat is not needed in responding forcefully to clear, hostile provocations, such as the Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf in the 1980’s.  Indeed, this obsessive, over-planning mentality is not only a hindrance to effective military action but a danger as it threatens to negate one of America’s greatest tactical military advantages:  the spirit of initiative and innovation of our military commanders and line units.

Moreover, even if it were possible to engage in this kind of obsessive pre-planning, what good would result?  It is axiomatic in war, Bismarck tells us, that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.   If Douthat wants a clear lesson from the Iraq war, surely Bismarck’s advice is one that is conveniently forgotten in the rush to blame and criticize the Iraq campaign.

Secondly, Douthat believes that no military action can be undertaken without “a detailed understanding of the country we’re entering, and the forces we’re likely to empower.”  Granted, as Sun Tzu said, it is best to know as much about your enemy as possible.  The problem is that Douthat’s fine-sounding advice is of little use outside of the faculty room or the halls of think tanks.   Yes, our nation needs to have an ongoing program that seeks to deepen our understanding of potential adversaries (not to mention allies).  This used to be the province of the C.I.A. and D.I.A.   Perhaps, in light of the sclerotic record, we should no longer take that for granted.  Nevertheless, this understanding must already exist and permeate the counsels of the President as a given when any military action is being considered.

It is not the kind of thing that exists in its own sphere.   To Douthat, it seems as an either-or proposition:  we either understand Libya, for example, or we do not.   In reality, we understand some things about Libya and its people and do not understand others (just as we understand some things about everything under the sun– with the possible exception of liberals who appear incomprehensible, even among themselves).   There is no point at which leaders can say, we understand everything about this nation.  There are gaps.   There are cultural blinders.  We must act within these parameters, not wait until we have achieved some mystical level of enlightenment.

Thirdly, Douthat argues for a rule that the “hawks” have the overwhelming “burden of proof” in any consideration for military action given the inherent risks and costs of war.

Certainly there is some sense in this.  Particularly as the scale of the action increases.  But Douthat’s rule here is more a reflection of his own predilections than an objective measure.   In other words, he argues that those advocating military intervention be forced to prove the merits of it, presumably beyond either a shadow of a doubt (the criminal standard of proof) or at least by a preponderance of the evidence (the civil legal standard).   But this is because, to Douthat, the costs and risks of acting far outweigh the costs and risks of inaction.  That is his preference (and likely that of most on the Left and in the Democrat party).   But a strong argument can be made that the costs and risks of inaction are no less than that of taking action and there is an abundance of historical examples too numerous to cite.

The Iraq war does not teach us that the so-called “hawks” should have been forced to prove their case beyond all doubt or debate.   Just the opposite.  Iraq is an example of action being taken where many of the risks were unknown and unknowable.   We can be fairly certain that inaction would have resulted in Saddam remaining in power, continuing to evade sanctions and increasing his capacity for mayhem, including WMDs. Thankfully, we took action and there is, at the very least, a struggling democracy with the hope of progress and of no threat to the U.S. or U.S. allies.

Applying Douthat’s rules to Libya is a foregone conclusion for inaction and timidity.  Here is Douthat’s conclusion:

Advocates of a Libyan intervention don’t seem to have internalized these lessons. They have rallied around a no-flight zone as their Plan A for toppling Qaddafi, but most military analysts seem to think that it will fail to do the job, and there’s no consensus on Plan B. Would we escalate to air strikes? Arm the rebels? Sit back and let Qaddafi claim to have outlasted us?

If we did supply the rebels, who exactly would be receiving our money and munitions? Libya’s internal politics are opaque, to put it mildly. But here’s one disquieting data point, courtesy of the Center for a New American Security’s Andrew Exum: Eastern Libya, the locus of the rebellion, sent more foreign fighters per capita to join the Iraqi insurgency than any other region in the Arab world.

And if the civil war dragged on, what then? Twice in the last two decades, in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, the United States has helped impose a no-flight zone. In both cases, it was just a stepping-stone to further escalation: bombing campaigns, invasion, occupation and nation-building.

None of this means that an intervention is never the wisest course of action. But the strategic logic needs to be compelling, the threat to our national interest obvious, the case for war airtight.

“Airtight” ?  That is a standard that will never be met in the real world.

I do not advocate direct military intervention in Libya, necessarily.  But the arguments by Douthat are spurious ones, designed to throw impossible obstacles in the way of action while seeming to be reasonable and leaving open the possibility for the use of force.

What I do advocate, however, is an American foreign policy that pursues American interests first.  Not the E.U.  Not the U.N.   Not the cheese-eaters and wine-tasters of the D.C. Beltway or that nebulous “world opinion.”

When I look at Libya I see, first and foremost, a dictator that has been a constant enemy of America; someone who ordered the bombing of a civilian airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland and still has innocent American blood on his hands to account for; someone who has toyed with nukes in the past and funds all manner of terrorists abroad.   If an opportunity arises to rid the earth of such a person, then serious consideration must be given.

This need not mean land invasion or no-fly zone.  There was a time when the U.S. possessed covert resources that could tip the scales in our favor in time of need.   If the U.S. lacks those covert resources now, that is to our everlasting shame and cannot be tolerated.  At one time, if I recall, the mujaheddin in Afghanistan found themselves in possession of Stinger anti-air missiles that were crucial in negating Soviet air power, leading eventually to a humiliating retreat by the Soviets.  With our advanced electronics assets, is it impossible for us to track down Qaddafi’s whereabouts and put an anonymous J-DAM into his bathroom window?

The point being that there exist an array of options, short of outright ground troops or decades-long air patrols, that can be employed to take out the dictator.   What happens next is a job for our diplomatic corps and the contingent of spooks that can be sent in to help things along toward a favorable outcome.   But people like Douthat only want to deal in terms of extremes.  If we can’t invade, we can’t do anything.  Nonsense.  Douthat is doing nothing more than providing a fig leaf to Obama’s congenital indecisiveness.   The heat is on for Obama to do something and Douthat wants to give Obama some cover.   Nothing new there.

But as an argument, it does not stand up.   To be sure there are risks to taking action.  There may be unintended consequences.  But, if worse comes to worse and Libya, however improbably, sinks lower than Qaddafi’s vile government, there are always options.  Always.

You are currently reading "To Act or Not to Act? Libya is the Question", entry #6523 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) CIA,Foreign Policy,War & Warfare and was published March 14th, 2011 by Glen Tschirgi.

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