Advancing a Free Society

Politics and War in Libya

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In the famous words of the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, "War is the continuation of politics by other means," and that maxim explains how the confusion in the administration's policies has contributed to the murkiness of the Libyan war.  Without articulate political leadership or clear political goals, we run the risk of stumbling into a potentially protracted conflict without understanding its purpose. Our military action has come late; our diplomacy has been ineffective; and the debilitating subordination of US interests and values to international processes betrays a misunderstanding of the demands of political leadership. Coming on the heels of the seemingly democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan rebellion has elicited extensive sympathy in the American public: all the more so, given Gadhafi's bloody record of assaults on Americans. Let's not forget the bombing of the La Belle discotheque in Berlin in 1986, which killed three American soldiers and wounded 230 others, including 50 servicemen, or the 1988 downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, with 270 fatalities. Americans have some scores to settle. Very early on, however, it became brutally clear that Gadhaffi has no intention to follow Hosni Mubarak by ceding power peacefully. Instead he has pursued a policy of violent suppression, which only heightened American public sympathy for the rebellion. Yet for weeks, the US government dithered. Only at the last moment, with Gadhaffi's troops at the gates of Benghazi, did the Security Council authorize action, with the US sheepishly following the lead of the French, the British and, even the Arab League. The Obama administration may have wanted to avoid the responsibilities of American leadership in Libya, but the US remains the sole superpower, and while our military power is not unlimited, US inaction has inescapable consequences. For America to refrain from supporting the Libyan rebels or to restrict our support to perfunctory verbal expressions of presidential sentiment would have sent a devastating message to democracy movements throughout the Arab world and elsewhere. Nonetheless, within the Obama administration, resistance toward any activist foreign policy prevented the US from acting as a leader in a way that could galvanize support for the rebellion. With little American political will, the international community could move only at a snail's pace, as every day's delay contributed to growing rebel casualties and Gadhaffi's troops plowed eastward. Although braver spirits eventually prevailed in the administration, damage has been done to the democratic movement in Libya as well as to American credibility, due to Washington's incapacity to act expeditiously. It is wishful thinking to interpret those weeks of American inaction as evidence of a clever diplomatic strategy to let others take the lead. No matter how the US may try, collateral damage and worse will be blamed on the US, not on the Europeans. Indeed, the European press is already calling Libya "Obama's war" (in contrast to Afghanistan, which was the old "Obama's war"). Yet if there was some American effort to work behind the scenes to engineer a coalition while camouflaging American leadership, we are now witnessing the failure of that diplomacy: support from the Arab League, so touted in the press, began to melt away as soon as the fighting started, and the European allies have promptly tied themselves up in knots over the role of NATO. While Norway supported intervention, it has suspended participation pending resolution of the leadership question: who is in charge? Italy has called for NATO to oversee the mission, but France is skeptical. In fact, it is difficult to see how NATO could manage the Libyan campaign effectively, since it prominently includes Germany, which abstained from the Security Council resolution, and Turkey which has expressed considerable reservations. Meanwhile President Obama insists on passing off leadership within days, which raises the question as to who will lead if the US insists on refusing. These are questions of international cooperation that ought to have been resolved in advance. Far from a victory for smart diplomacy and soft power, the opening of the Libyan campaign is already displaying how things fall apart if the US tries to escape from politics by renouncing its leadership role. Nothing demonstrates the confusion of the administration's position more than the lack of specificity regarding the war goals. Both the President and the Secretary of the State have called for Gadhaffi to leave, but neither explicitly links that political outcome to the current military action: as if warfare were without political consequences. The Security Council Resolution calls for protecting civilians, but the primary civilians needing protection are standing in open rebellion against their regime. In other words, the rebels, whom we are protecting, are pursuing regime change, which however is too bold a goal for the US to embrace. Strangely, we are willing to protect civilians' lives, but we are not willing to protect the right of citizens to govern themselves. This refusal to articulate a political goal for the Libyan campaign—for example, establishing a stable, democratic regime in Tripoli—means that we are deploying military power and risking lives without a clear definition of success. The administration evidently believes that reliance on international organizations and the primacy of international law can allow it to avoid the hard conflicts of politics. Yet it is precisely this illusion of a statecraft without politics that may be leading us into a war without an end. Victory would be an alternative.

(photo credit: BRQ Network)