Reflections on the Third Anniversary of the Death of Qaddafi
As we look back on the third anniversary of the death of Muammar Qaddafi it is impossible to argue with President Obama’s self-assessment that his greatest foreign policy error was made in Libya. The failure was not to be found in Benghazi as the partisan conspiracy theorists allege or because “leading from behind” is a sign of weakness. The allegations about the former have been dismissed after thorough investigation and resulted from the fog that inevitably accompanies the immediate aftermath of any tragic event and the latter was a mature assessment that sometimes allies and friends have to act in their own interests – that American soldiers and taxpayers can’t be expected to do all the heavy lifting across 197 million square miles of the earth’s surface. Unfortunately, the failure – however well-intentioned -- was manifold in terms the of an inability to conceive of and execute an integrated foreign policy, specifically:
- The failure to learn lessons from Iraq
- The failure to adhere to its own strategy of “Engagement”
- The depletion of “soft power” reserves in the Middle East, and
- The failure to place the crisis in Geopolitical perspective
As a state senator and later as a US Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama had correctly decried the shortcomings of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The risk of destabilization via regime change in a country that had been under tight control for decades by a monolithic and brutal regime was quite well understood by 2011. Pursuing the objective of regime change with no plan of action for the “day after” was clearly seen as a fiasco in leadership almost immediately after the fall of Baghdad and was a major reason behind the dramatic gains by the Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections. In spite of this the Obama administration and our European allies – including France that opposed Iraq but was a major advocate of taking action in Libya – repeated all of the same mistakes. Regime change, followed by no plan of action, followed by chaos and radicalization. There is no excuse.
During the 2008 presidential campaign candidate Obama proposed the policy of engagement with troublesome regimes as a major theme for his foreign policy. He reiterated this message in his Inaugural Address. Yet, in Libya the west had the poster child for the benefits of engagement in what up until that time was referred to glowingly as “The Libya Model.” In 2003 Libya had renounced terrorism, given up its nuclear weapons program and cooperated with US intelligence about the A. Q. Kahn nuclear proliferation network. Consequently, the US government did not oppose Libya’s membership on the UN Security Council in 2008-09. President Obama met also met with Colonel Qaddafi who had been invited to attend the 2009 G8 Summit by the host country Italy. President Bush had sent the first US Ambassador to Libya in 36 years and the Obama continued the policy of recognizing the Qaddafi regime. The Libyan intervention certainly does not sell the benefits of engagement, a lesson that was likely not lost on Teheran.
A corollary to the policy of engagement was a commitment to employ soft power and to open a dialogue with voices of moderation in the Islamic world. Early in his administration the President flew to Cairo and stated, “America will defend itself respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law…” In his Nobel address he had stated, “… no nation can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.” These words would came back to haunt him when he failed to take action against much larger systematic massacres of civilians in Syria In failing to go to Congress for approval of these actions he also contradicted comments made in 2007 when he stated, “The president does not have the power to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping the actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Candidate Obama had promised the end of “unchecked presidential power” and “no more ignoring the law when convenient.”
In approaching the violence in Libya that arose as part of the so-called Arab Spring the President did nevertheless seek UN authority. The two UN resolutions (1970 and 1973), however, authorized only a no fly zone and an arms embargo. The UN Charter itself authorizes actions to “restore international peace and security” but not “force against another state” or, in this case, regime change. As carried out, however, the intervention was contrary to these principles. President Obama not only called for Qaddafi to step down (a legitimate request) but on at least four occasions NATO bombardments targeted the compounds frequented by Qaddafi resulting in the deaths of members of Qaddafi’s family. In spite of the UN resolutions arms were funneled to the rebels who were ultimately recognized as the legitimate representatives of Libya. During the presidential debates in 2012 the president acknowledged that regime change had been the objective from the start. In addition, the chaos unleashed in Libya also clearly contributed to the transfer of weapons and increased violence in Mali and Syria. The president’s aggressive adoption of military action, especially drone warfare elsewhere, has undermined the “soft power” promise that greeted his election.
One area of notable success that the Obama administration achieved in its early years was the imposition of sanctions against Iran and then later in regard to Libya with the tacit approval of China and Russia which abstained in the Security Council. The feeling by both countries, but especially by Russia, that it had been duped in Libya not only made any consensus for humanitarian assistance in Syria out of the question, but complicated continued cooperation by these two powers in dealing with Iran. The suspicion and, in Russia’s view, the outright hypocrisy of the United States in talking about international law when it suited its interest jaundiced the perception of events in Maidan Square and almost certainly played some role in the actions President Putin has taken in Crimea and Ukraine. An administration that commenced with the hopeful language of “reset” enters its final two years with a dangerously adversarial relationship with Moscow and “salami slicing” in the China Sea.
President Obama was very poorly served by his entire foreign policy team that strongly advised him to take action in Libya contrary to many of the principles he had enunciated up to that time and in intertwining it with the language of the yet inchoate principle of Responsibility to Protect. First, as stated above, they acted with complete disregard of the clear lessons learned in Iraq. Second, in doing so they advised that he act in pursuance of a norm that is yet emerging under international law and has not been ratified as American policy. Thirdly, if they truly care about establishing such humanitarian intervention as a legitimate practice they cannot do so by acting contrary to the language of the authorizing resolutions or by pursuing purely political objectives, such as regime change, lurking under the humanitarian mantel. The result of such inconsistent behavior has now opened the world to political objectives pursued under the cover of humanitarian assistance and which we are now witnessing elsewhere in the world in military supply convoys and military ships being painted white and therefore operating in a zone of exception that we ourselves created. A final takeaway point is that the president directly intervened in Libya but not in Syria and yet both countries are essentially embroiled in civil wars underscoring perhaps the best advice given on the Middle East in recent memory. As former Secretary of the Navy and Senator Jim Webb said, do not get in the middle of a five sided argument you do not understand.