op-ed

Intervening in Libya was a mistake

Adam Salmon Contributor
Font Size:

The first sentence of the famous opening crawl for the film The Empire Strikes Back — “It is a dark time for the Rebellion” — appears to have laid out the rationale for American involvement in Libya more succinctly than any official administration pronouncements made thus far. Throughout this seminal Arab Spring, the United States has largely stood by and watched as tens of thousands across the Middle East have taken to the streets in general protest of closed autocratic rule. In Libya, a significant number of revolutionaries have taken their movement a step further by taking up arms against Muammar Qaddafi. Last Thursday, with Qaddafi’s tanks threatening the gates of Benghazi, President Obama chose this ragtag band of irregulars as the first Arab uprising worthy of more than his rhetorical and moral support.

It’s true that Colonel Qaddafi is a murderer and a thug almost without peer in the contemporary international system. But if anyone knows the true extent of Qaddafi’s ruthlessness, his proclivity toward violence, and his intolerance of dissent, it is the rank-and-file of the Libyan rebellion. One must assume that these men understood, from the very first day they shouldered a weapon, that they would ultimately be made to face the full wrath of an enraged Qaddafi. There was no reason to believe that Qaddafi would conform to some larger pattern, or that the Arab Spring was some blessed moment in time when dictators would decide to just up and leave. Egypt and Tunisia were exceptions, and if anyone could be counted on to enforce the rule, it was always Qaddafi.

Many of the armchair generals in the media continue to bemoan the fact that Obama wasted valuable time “dithering” over the decision to intervene on behalf of the Libyan rebels. Never mind that these anti-ditherers are, almost without exception, the same crowd for whom there is no limit to what the application of American military might can accomplish, regardless of circumstance. The implication from these persistent saber-rattlers is that they would have moved much more swiftly to establish a no-fly zone to protect the nascent rebellion’s gains before Qaddafi had a chance to regroup and launch his counterattack.

A no-fly zone, however, never had much of a chance of changing the true strategic calculus on the ground regardless of how quickly it might have been implemented, and still does not. A no-fly zone by itself could not and cannot depose Qaddafi, it could not and cannot take Tripoli for the rebellion, and it was and is unlikely to sap any support from those remaining Qaddafi loyalists throughout Libya. “Shaping the battlefield” in eastern Libya helps the rebellion out of its corner, yes, but there is much heavy lifting yet to be done in order to actually wrest control of Libya from Qaddafi. All that the coalition missiles and bombing raids over the weekend have done is push the inevitable final showdown between Qaddafi’s forces and the Libyan insurgency just over the horizon a bit. The darkest days for the rebellion still lie ahead.

Obama’s reluctance to act for the sake of acting was very much in keeping with both his personality and his principles. It signaled an American president heeding his better instincts to leave Libya to the Libyans, Egypt to the Egyptians, and Tunisia to the Tunisians. This sounds utterly foreign to those who view restraint as a pejorative, and who believe that the American military is a solution for which problems must always be sought, but it is a principled position.

I wish that Obama had had the strength and conviction to trust his gut. It certainly looks as though he was rolled into making war by foreign leaders at the U.N., the Arab League, and Secretary of State Clinton. For me, it is by acceding to this action — not his “dithering” — that Obama has revealed weakness.

Meanwhile, our longtime allies in Japan, where more lives are likely hanging in the balance than in Benghazi, are suffering on an almost unimaginable scale. Our humanitarianism there would not go unappreciated, and would be repaid in spades over the long term. Our humanitarianism in Libya is only likely to sow even more resentment, fear, distrust, and instability in the Arab and Muslim worlds — all of which are less desirable than any amount of “dithering” Obama might have done. Dark times, indeed.

Adam Salmon is a proud graduate of the University of Kentucky and was formerly in operations management at a D.C. think tank. He is currently on the prowl for a position on the Hill. Follow him on Twitter @adamjsalmon.