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War in Libya: Lessons not learned

28 March, 2011

By Dr James Zogby


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For weeks President Barack Obama faced a barrage of criticism from the Republicans over his administration`s failure to intervene in Libya`s ongoing conflict. The GOP`s assault accused the President of "weakness", "dithering", and "a lack of leadership". But, coming from the same cast of characters, who recklessly led us into Iraq, the attacks could be dismissed as partisan rhetoric.

Then, in what appeared to be a sudden about face, the administration moved quickly to press for a United Nations Security Council Resolution calling for a "no-fly zone plus" intervention in Libya. Citing "imminent humanitarian concern", a US-led effort launched attacks hitting the Libyan air defences and ground forces that were advancing on rebel-held cities.

As the bombing of Libya began, the President left Washington on a previously scheduled trade mission to several Central and South American countries. After attempting to manage the conflicting messages of the visit and the unfolding events in Libya, the President cut short his trip and returned to face a developing war at home with Congressional critics and political opponents from the right and left troubled by the administration`s actions.

Some of the concerns raised by the members of Congress are legitimate, others are downright kooky, but all must now be addressed. The issues being raised can generally be categorised as follows:

It’s too little, too late

This is a continuation of the pre-hostilities’ partisan attack line against the President. Concerned that the US not militarily engage in another Arab country without regional support, Obama rightly waited until the Arab League passed its resolution calling for a "no-fly zone" before going to the United Nations to seek authorisation to strike Libya.

When John McCain (R-AZ) complains that Obama "waited too long [regretting] that we didn`t act much more quickly", and when Lindsey Graham (R-SC) bristles that "we`re taking a backseat rather than a leadership role", both are ignoring post-Iraq realities in the Middle East. And those GOP hawks, who have now upped the ante, arguing that unless “we take Gaddafi out” the mission is a failure, are likewise treading on dangerous ground. They may long for the day when America fashioned itself the “cowboy sheriff” or “the white knight on a charger", but what they forget is that during the last decade George W. Bush shot the horse and tarnished the knight`s reputation.

Liberal Democrats are opposed

Still chafing over the costs of two failed wars and budget cuts to social programmes, there is a brewing revolt in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. A congressional group met last week and made clear their concern with beginning a "third Middle East war" echoing Dennis Kucinich`s (D-OH) concern that "we have money for endless wars, and can`t take care of things at home."

No congressional authorisation

As candidate for President, then Senator Obama was quite clear in noting the constitutional requirement that the US military engagement be authorised by the Congress. In the current situation, the White House has argued that because they notified the Congress and because this action is of limited duration, the administration does not need specific authorisation - an argument that is not gaining traction in Washington. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) raised this concern last week, observing, "[we] are troubled that US military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for...Congress...what the mission is." More ominous for the White House was Minority Whip Steny Hoyer`s (D-MD) apparent concurrence saying: "I don`t think there was a lot of consultation." Pushing both leaders will be their rank and file, who are more inclined to demand adherence to principles. Tea Party favourite Justin Amash (R-MI) made a strong constitutional case for a congressional role, while Kucinich asked whether in not seeking congressional authorisation, the President had committed an impeachable offence1.

What is the US vital interest in Libya?

An additional concern is raised by those who question what US interests are at stake justifying the American military involvement. Scott Rigell (R-VA), for example, notes: "American lives were not at risk...and Libya was not a material threat to the US. While Candace Miller (R-MI) asks: "What`s the vital US interest? How much will it cost? How do you define success?"

Critics of the administration have a point when they argue that issues, as fundamental as "why we are fighting" and "who we are fighting for", should have been discussed before hostilities began. Because they were not discussed before hostilities, the day after the bombing started they came to the fore. USA Today`s cover story, for example, was "Libya`s Five Big Questions", while the New York Times prominently ran its own piece raising questions about the "who, what and why" of this conflict.

Outcome not clear.

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