Libya is in a state of dissolution. Its central government is weak and disunited. Acts of violence are increasing. Benghazi is a no-man’s land of bad actors where it is too dangerous for any nation to keep an official or known presence. There is reportedly a terrorist training camp there now. Oil-rich eastern Libya in general is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalists looking for a religious state; the region last year declared its autonomy from Tripoli. The fundamentalists, Qaddafi loyalists and foreign-born itinerant mercenaries wage war, buttressed by the jihadists chased out of Mali by the French. This eclectic jihad is bringing together fanatics and ideologues, the aggrieved, miscreants and unemployed youths. It is growing as the terrorist cells rove back and forth between countries, moving into friendly areas and staying just long enough to pick up new recruits, wreak havoc and weaken the government before running. The new jihadists are like flash mobs and they are hard to stop. In Libya’s tinderbox the addition of drive-by jihadists could detonate a renewed explosion of violence.
Not long ago there was a fairly stable Libya under oddball Moammar Qaddafi, a one-time sworn enemy of the US who publicly renounced any intention of developing WMD after the invasion of Iraq. But that was before Hillary Clinton and hawks from both sides of the aisle began a campaign to unleash NATO against Libya using the human rights pretext. Clinton needed a military victory under her belt to prove her fitness as future CINC and she had to fight a reluctant Obama to get there. When the bombs fell and our guys murdered Qaddafi in a scene reminiscent of the famous Vietnam execution photo, she was there, openly reveling in her foe’s death and already taking credit. Mission accomplished. And now look — everything has fallen to dust throughout the land of the Arab Spring. Ms. Clinton took credit for it and I hope she gets full credit for it.
Whether or not Obama wanted to go to war against Mr. Qaddafi, we were led there by changes in US and NATO policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union that make it too easy to intervene in other people’s business. First, we abandoned realpolitik in favor of a utopian, one-world mindset. Realpolitik requires that we choose our military fights based on cold facts and political calculation. Do we have vital US interests at stake? Do we have the capability to wage warfare under the conditions we would face? Do we have plans for all stages of operation including the post-warfare phase? Do we have an end game? Most important: can we afford it? Those are the kinds of questions we should be asking before we send out NATO jets to settle somebody else’s fight.
In place of realpolitik, Bill Clinton brought an urge to internationalism and a willingness to use our military over issues of little or no importance to US security. The USG lost much of its historic leeriness about using the military in such situations. Today US military prowess is so great and the rapidity with which we can deploy our military such that our government is compelled to show it off. As Madeleine Albright said to Gen. Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?” Our superiority makes it easy to take out a petty-ante dictator in a small and unstable country and thus tempts politicians to use it with too little thought because it is overpowering and fast and it always wipes the other guy out. These short wars are over quickly and give a short-lived boost to presidential popularity. That means a small war carefully timed can be useful politically. It can hardly be coincidental that the war in Serbia and Monica Lewinsky blabbing her secrets coincided.
Other things that have changed over the past twenty years or so are the frequency of US/NATO recourse to military force (much greater now) and the nature of our actions– offensive (preemptive), not defensive. Since 1999, NATO and the United States have operated under a strategic concept that abandoned NATO’s historic defensive posture in favor of a preemptive dogma. The concept included a vague range of justifications for the use of military force across a massive and undefined geographic area that could include China and Russia and a lot of Africa. The reasons for intervention can be anything from an environmental crisis to a nuclear threat and does not have to be imminent.
Kosovo was a NATO watershed, marking NATO’s transformation into a self-appointed global policeman working closely with international organizations. NATO gave itself the green light to initiate preemptive action even when it was not itself under threat. NATO’s broad mandate and aggressive posture, as well as the growing precedent for intervention on non-critical grounds, has made the likelihood of multiple future interventions very high. After all, how can you intervene for human rights in one country and refuse to do it in another country? Each time we intervene to empower regime opponents somewhere, we act as a stimulus to dissident groups elsewhere. Today’s rebels know that to get NATO military support, they must cause enough disorder to prompt a harsh government response. The ensuing escalation of violence will always bring in the neo-interventionists.
Other world powers watch the US and NATO with concern and worry that someday they might face down NATO military over a domestic issue. A lot of maneuvering is underway to check the US, and Syria is turning out to be where lines are drawn. They have to use all means at their disposal to counter NATO’s claims to supranational authority. Russia will continue its long-time relationship with Syria, its arms sales and its diplomatic and limited military support. It will not sign off on a UN Security Council authorization for force.
Something we need to remember is that the suppression of national sovereignty in favor of global rule and the assertion of human rights as a justification for intervention– are left-wing perennials. It’s the global version of the Nanny State. The whole supposed right to violate a country’s sovereignty on vague human rights grounds is based on references to global human rights in the UN Charter. It may look like the same old America, but it isn’t. The left has sucked us into the human rights bog so deeply that even as sensible people ponder how we can possibly extricate ourselves, we consider bombing Syria.
We are in a new era, old concepts giving way to new. So far we are not batting a thousand. Libya stands as an example of what happens when we substitute military force for sound policy and the ongoing post-conflict support to succeed. It stands as an example of utopian foreign policy.