Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel once noted: “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” Maybe that explains Washington’s bipartisan support for military intervention in Libya. Though the United States has no strategic interests in Libya nor has it been attacked by the country, both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists demand action. Both sides want President Obama to get on with it: impose a no-fly zone, launch air-strikes, arm the rebels, and depose Qaddafi.
The president is reticent to do so. He plans to “tighten the noose” around the Libyan leader’s neck by working through international institutions that have frozen his assets and isolated him from the global community. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Libya, banned the ruling family from leaving the country, and recommended that the International Criminal Court put the ruling regime on trial for war crimes.
These efforts have not deterred Qaddafi. Over the last several days, Qaddafi’s supporters have gained the edge over rebel forces. Late last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress that the tyrant would likely hold onto power.
This caused an outcry. Two sympathetic questioners (Sen. Joe Manchin D-WV and Carl Levin D-MI) were taken aback by his response. Sen. Lindsey Graham rushed to the nearest television camera and demanded Clapper’s resignation. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained that DNI’s testimony was based on the latest intelligence, not on the administration’s policy.
All eyes turned to Mr. Obama. The president held a press conference the next day. He reiterated that “Qaddafi must go” and claimed that “all options were on the table.” But he said the U.S. was not ready to implement a no-fly zone or arm rebel forces. He would send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to meet an opposition council, but unlike France and Portugal, wouldn’t recognize the Benghazi council.
Critics from the left and right immediately blasted the president. Liberals demanded that the U.S. step in and prevent genocide. Conservatives ripped the president and said he had abdicated his responsibility as commander-in-chief. Both sides want the president to take charge and insist that international military action cannot be undertaken unless the U.S. leads. Both note (in lament) that France, Britain, and the Arab League all demanded a No-Fly Zone while Washington assessed the situation.
Two prominent members of the administration voiced their concerns about the situation. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that implementing a no-fly zone over Libya would involve a “big operation” and require air strikes to destroy air defenses. State Secretary Hillary Clinton reminded Congress that no-fly zones failed to deter Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkans during the late 1990s, forcing the U.S. and its NATO allies to escalate the situation. Both emphasize caution and insist the U.S. think things through before getting involved.
That is exactly what the president has done. He has questioned the efficacy of this operation and certainly doesn’t want to involve the United States in a third Middle East military operation. He also recognized that these operations never go as smoothly as predicted. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan was a cakewalk: both, one could argue, turned into quagmires. During the 1990s, President George H.W. Bush put boots on the ground in Somalia to aid during that country’s humanitarian crisis. Operations did not go smoothly. Ultimately, American forces got embroiled in the Battle of Mogadishu and nineteen servicemen’s lives were lost.
Have we forgotten? War is never simple. Things rarely work out as planned. Few military intervention are straight-forward. The easy thing is to get enmeshed in the conflict, especially when the drumbeats for war grow louder by the day.
Mr. Obama is wise to think things through, to keep all options on the table, and look skeptically at those who want to commit blood and treasure to Libya. Sure the United States could launch a no-fly zone tomorrow. What about the next day? What happens when Qaddafi is deposed? Do troops keep the peace until a new government is formed? The president knows getting in is easy. Getting out is the challenge.