Rolling the Dice in Libya

by , April 26, 2011

President Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008 partly by reminding the party’s base of his early, prescient criticisms of the ill-fated decision to invade Iraq. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war … a rash war,” then-Senator Obama explained in 2002.

Obama was right to call the Iraq War “dumb” and “rash”: the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq was based not just on an “intelligence failure,” but on flagrant hubris, ignorance of geography and history, and unawareness of the limits of American power in the 21st century. And yet the Obama administration demonstrated each of these failings  in deciding to involve the U.S. in Libya’s civil war.

Much ado was made about the U.S. “handing over” the Libya mission to NATO after dominating the first stage of the operation. But NATO is best understood as a multilateral cloak for American power; the U.S. has a military far larger and more advanced than any of its NATO allies, and it is by far the largest contributor to NATO’s budget.

The U.S.-NATO mission in Libya, we are told again and again, is nothing more than a temporary “humanitarian” operation to protect civilians. Since we are still bombing away at Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s military, one would think that Gadhafi’s forces are still on the verge of massacring defenseless civilians in rebel-held cities. But then we learn of “progress” in the war: under the cover of U.S./NATO-provided air power, rebels have taken cities from Gadhafi’s forces and advanced closer to Tripoli.

Apparently, “protecting civilians” means attempting to crush the Libyan government forces and turn the tide of the civil war in the rebels’ favor.

Defenders of the intervention appeal to our sense of decency by warning of the “genocide” that might have occurred had events in Libya been permitted to run their course, but this is nothing more than conjecture. It is possible to defend any course of action by asserting that a worst-case scenario would have occurred had the action not been taken. However, our worst fears usually do not turn out to be accurate predictors of the future.

Despite the Obama administration’s protests to the contrary, what was sold as an effort to protect Libyan civilians has quickly developed into an unstated commitment to regime-change in Libya, with all the long-term challenges, obligations, and uncertainties that entails. It has also morphed into a full embrace of the Libyan rebels, though no one is sure exactly what the rebels stand for, or whether they have a workable plan to restore stability and govern the country democratically in a post-Gadhafi era.

Like Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya relied upon wishful thinking about the post-intervention course of events. Bush assured us that the conflict in Iraq would be swift, decisive, and relatively painless for the U.S.; Obama assured us that the mission in Libya would not require ground troops or a sustained American commitment and that it would be over in “days, not weeks.”

But as political scientist Robert Pape has shown, air power alone is rarely, if ever, sufficient to achieve a state’s aims in war. And the “days” of U.S. involvement have already become “weeks” and will soon become “months,” as they tend to do in wars—which are, after all, unpredictable and uncontrollable.

President Obama has joined the long line of presidents who have been blinded by U.S. power and failed to perceive the limits of that power. He is likely to fail in Libya—or pay a high price for a very limited and temporary success—because he chose to ignore the advice of the great strategist Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote: “War is the realm of chance. … Chance makes everything more uncertain and interferes with the whole course of events.”

The hopes and expectations of war supporters are routinely dashed by the complexity of reality. War plans often rely on best-case scenarios and assume that the planners are gifted with such foresight and judgment that they can realistically project how events will unfold. But the human actors driving these events on the ground often respond quite unpredictably to changes in their situation.

Prudent policymakers and citizens should expect hasty wars of choice based on rose-eyed assumptions to fail and to have unforeseen consequences that last decades. This is not the outcome we hope for in the Libya war, but it is the outcome we can most safely bet on.

Read more by Ryan McCarl