A Defense of Obama’s Limited Commitment to the Libyan Campaign


The debate over the extent of US involvement in Libya is heating up, and a predictable cluster of analysts are claiming that we a backing into serious endeavor with no clear strategy, with confused ethics, raising process above substance, etc. I say predictable, because it looks increasingly like the ‘usual suspects‘ of liberal internationalist hawks and neo-cons who helped gin up the war on terror (GWoT) that by almost any benchmark has gone pretty badly astray. The gist of seems to be that Obama is a ditherer so we are drifting through this. Republicans of course will hammer Obama for this.

This strikes me as somewhat unfair (even though all the links above are worth your time and most of the points are fair). So here is a case for the limited, we’re-not-quite-sure-what-we-are-doing, we-hope-the-allies-and-Arabs-will-do-more intervention we just started. (For an R2P defense, try this.)


1. The narrowing time window in Libya forced the West’s hand before a serious strategic discussion could be fleshed out. Ideally, we would have had something like Obama’s serious, months-long deliberation on Afghanistan in 2009. All the big voices could be heard – western militaries and parliaments especially. A public opinion debate in western media could have generated at least some basic consensus among elites and publics both within and across the coalition’s member states. But war of course does not wait for strategists and planners to hammer out all the details, or for long public debates. Just about any basic strategy course will tell you how much unpredictability conflict generates and how actors frequently have to ad-lib and flim-flam their way through these sorts of engagements. New events pop up out of nowhere (Arab Spring); wholly unforeseen consequences suddenly loom (like a Libyan bloodbath); previous ‘certainties’ evaporate as new actors, atrocities, resources, etc. enter the picture (who are the Libyan rebels anyway?). Sometimes, the pressure of time simply cannot be avoided. I argued last week that if Libya were to evolve into a Bosnian-style bloodbath, the West would have to intervene, and fairly quickly. Inevitably that means that the operation will be organized on the fly and be fairly sloppy. Yet the alternative was so much worse. So yes, this thing is a mess, but it’s not too bad so far – let’s be fair – and the alternative of Gadhafi’s Gestapo tactics in eastern Libya is downright chilling. To my mind, western leaders deserve genuine congratulations at this point for pulling together some kind of reasonably coordinated campaign that no one really wanted very fast that has achieved the stated goals of the UN Security Council resolution. That’s not bad at all actually…


2. The US use of force is increasingly de-coupled from anything but presidential decision, but constitutionally, democracies really needed to wait and ‘dither’ a little bit. Andrew Sullivan has made this point very well. The case for ‘dithering’ is actually a good one, because the democracies really should not change into war without some public debate and consultation. Anyone whose studied the evolution of US foreign policy since WWII knows the (and should worry about) the increasing presidentialization of US war-making authority. The US has not declared war since WWII. The US has fought Korea, Vietnam, Iraq 1 and 2, and Afghanistan without formal constitutional authority from Congress (Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution). No, this does not mean the US president is becoming a military dictator (read Chalmers Johnson if you think so), but it is unnerving and increasingly undemocratic. So I think Obama did the right thing, by American law, in waiting for a least little while so that their could be some debate in the Congress and US public on this. This would apply to France and Britain as well.


3. The US is overstretched. This should be so strikingly obvious to everyoneexcept neo-cons I suppose – that is a very good reason to dither and otherwise look for a light, low impact intervention before lots of grandiose rhetoric about Clausewitz and such. This is premature it seems to me. This is not yet a major national mobilization in the West for a huge war. Maybe we can move through this with minimal intervention. We don’t know, but why isn’t it worth a try? If have to really ramp up to pursue a Clausewitzian victory (win big through a massive military strike at the heart of the enemy and get the awful, unpredictable business of war over as fast as possible), we can. But remember that Clausewitz was writing for interstate war traditionally defined. He didn’t think too much about insurgencies or foreign interventions for limited political gains in a revolutionary situation. Clearly invading Libya (‘boots on the ground’) would be a major new commitment when we really can’t afford that, and the likelihood it would backfire is huge. In that sort of environment, bombing to stop atrocities is not such a bad compromise.


4. Kosovo is not such a bad model after all. In 1999, NATO bombed the Serbs into (something like) submission in Kosovo. We helped the Kosovo Liberation Army even the odds, and today Kosovo is not that bad. It’s not great, but at least there is no ethnic cleansing. The conflict had (some) multilateral legitimacy, and while it angered Russia, it did not provoke a new Cold War which a heavier footprint might have. This was organized by most under-appreciated general in recent US history – Wesley Clark (probably because he is a Democrat whom the GOP cannot lionize). If you haven’t read his book on his work in the Balkans, you should. It is the likely model for Libya, even if the GOP thinks it is wimpy, violates Clausewitzian rules, and cedes the initiative to the French and Arabs.


5. Iraq really should give everyone pause and does, very obviously, argue for caution and last-resort thinking, at least for now. Anyone even passably familiar with the US budget should know that US unipolarity is on the ropes. No, the US should not suffer from an Iraq or Vietnam syndrome. But the GWoT has become such a mess, that does anyone really think that US public opinion (not interventionist elites, mind you) want some huge commitment? Yes, Americans and the West want to stop horrific atrocities; the ‘CNN effect’ is real, and we should try where we can (Rwanda should have taught us that). But I can’t imagine that the US voter, who really wants to leave Afghanistan and Iraq, wants to hear about Clausewitz in Libya. We have to balance our desire to help with American exhaustion and reticence after a decade of war. Hence, Obama’s middling approach is actually a fair response to contradictory pressures, it seems to me.


If you consider all these factors – to go in early and hard against Gadhafi (when it would have helped the rebels most, and because America ‘leads’ not ‘dithers’) vs. to stay out altogether (because we have no idea what we are doing and have just thrown this together at the last minute) – I think Obama, Clinton, Sarkozy, and Cameron actually found a pretty good middle course that can basically be summarized as ‘bombing for human rights.’ Yes, that is confused, messy, hardly a rousing call to arms and patriotism, dithering, possibly oxymoronic, and so on. But it balances well all the contradictory pressures listed above, which must be awfully hard this late in the history of the GWoT and Arab Spring. So before we tear them apart on the op-ed pages, let’s at least give them a chance. We will continue to debate this as war goes on; we can change course if we really need to because of new circumstances; and the West (and even the Arab League!) should be proud of itself for having prevented an almost certain bloodbath. That seems like a pretty good record so far.

20 thoughts on “A Defense of Obama’s Limited Commitment to the Libyan Campaign

  1. As far as the Arab league. Of course they were for it. Keeps the heat of Saudi Arabia et all to brutalize their own people. In Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s case, to attack the Shia in Bahrain as well. You are aware that there is an uprising in Syria and that the Turks recently intercepted an arms shipment to Syria sent by Iran.

    Actaully, right now, the president’s own party is hammering him. Dennis Kucinich is introducing a bill to defund the action. Did you see what Minister Farrakhan had to say? Even MSNBC noticed this morning that there was bi-partisan angst. But not here. In fact the Republican Speaker has backed the action. So has John McCain.

    “He didn’t think too much about insurgencies or foreign interventions for limited political gains in a revolutionary situation.” This is flat wrong.

    Also no two actions are the same, Sec-Def Roberts Gates has stated that we have not done this type of no-fly zone before, I could go into it but I don’t have the time.

    Plus there is no international coalition. It is France, the US and UK. Maybe France wants a role for NATO or not. Germany wants no part and claims that they may pull out of NATO militarily. Italy is pondering the use of its airfields if France keeps up its antics. African dictators have come out against. The Arab League is having second thoughts, Evo Morales of Bolivia is leading a charge to re-call the Nobel Prize awarded to President Obama. China and Russia are flat against. And Dr. Bob, all that you can come up with is Neo-Con is against President Obama.

    Once again, there is a real problem in Libya but in the US it all boils down to domestic politics. Everything is viewed through the partisan lenses.

    In fact, The Hill reported yesterday that the administration is changing to mission to one of regime change and establishing democracy in Libya.


    • Dr. Bob:

      You should read Chapters 25 and 26 of “On War” by Clausewitz. Chapter 25 is titled “Retreat to the Interior of the Country” and Chapter 26 is titled “People in Arms”. Here is some of Chapter 26:

      “In the civilized parts of Europe, war by means of popular uprisings is a phenomenon of the nineteenth century. It has its advocates and its opposition. The latter object to it either on political grounds, considering it as a means of revolution, a state of legalized anarchy that is as much of a threat to the social order at home as it is to the enemy; or else on military grounds because they feel that the results are not commensurate with the energies that have been expanded.”

      More: “The second objection, on the other hand, leads us to remark that a popular uprising should, in general, be considered as an outgrowth of the way in which the conventional barriers have been swept away in our lifetime by elemental violence of war. It is, in fact, a broadening and intensification of the fermentation process known as war”

      Clausewitz is very difficult to grasp (from what I have studied, even the German High Command got him wrong in WWI). Everyone thinks that they know Clausewitz. I have studied Clausewitz at the 700 University level and still don’t understand “On War” as I should.

      Dr. Bob, you and I should have a discussion on Clausewitz. Remember that Clausewitz came to being around the time of the French Revolution and the wars of intervention that ensued.


  2. Dr. Bob:

    Sir Max Hastings, one of the most knowledgble (best) military historians in the world wrote the following. It appearded in “The Financial Times”:

    “US and its allies are too late to help Libya”


    I had the tremendous pleasure of meeting Sir Max Hasting last year.

    Also, you can always tell when a situation is debated for purely domestic poltical reasons. As in the debate over “dithering” this or that. I could care less. I want to see sound military planning regardless of how long it takes provided that the window to act has not been compromised. Also providing, in this case, that the political situation on the ground is incorporated. I don’t know if we have done that. We don’t even know who the “rebels” are. We made contact with them only recently.

    Dr. Bob, based on this, do we attack Iran, Mugabe next? Look at the Ivory Coast. Gbagbo’s army has begun shelling civilians. What is your matrix for action? Clarely we should have intervened in Rwanda.


    • GS:

      Thanks. I was reading that CATO paper and it reminded me of an earlier thought. That Ivory Coast will become Rwanda faster than Libya ever would have. The issue in the Ivory Coast stems from the “Ivority” National Identify scheme. This program intiated and sponsered by the Ivorian state sought to disenfranchise the Moslem north. Many years ago I discussed this issue with a Moslem friend from the Ivory Coast. He recounted how back in his native land he had to prove his “Ivority”. I think that he even had to carry a card proving such.
      Now both sides are armed and ready to fight. In fact there have already been skirmishes and just last week the government troops were shelling civilians. The South (status quo) versus the Moslem north (Les Forces Nouvelles). Refugees are pouring into Liberia en mass further straining the fragile situation in Liberia.

      Dr. Bob, why haven’t you made this case for the Ivory Coast? In fact this is where France should have been conducting peace ops months ago.

      Dr. Bob, this is where you will probably find your next Rwanda.


    • Ok. Point taken. I will have to read more about Kosovo, but my thinking was based on Clark’s work and this, which I reviewed for a journal a few years ago. My general sense is still that Kosovo could have been much worse, and that is the real benchmark here – not that Kosov is a democracy, liberal, etc; just that it didn’t become Rwanda. In a world of awful choices – Benghazi as Srebrenica if Gadhafi had won – this messy intervention is still a better choice, no?


  3. “I think Obama, Clinton, Sarkozy, and Cameron actually found a pretty good middle course that can basically be summarized as ‘bombing for human rights.’”

    This could not be further from the truth. Dr. Bob, have you taken the time to actually study the stated objectives of France, the UK or the US? They are all different. For starters the British now want to sanction the killing of Gaddafi since he is still defiant. The US is against. The French want a political committee to run the bombing. In fact the French PM stated that France was not at war.

    Also, what in the world is ‘bombing for human right.’? What is it? No wonder US Secretary of Defense Gates stated that the US has never conducted a no-fly zone like this before.

    From Spiegel Online:
    ‘Gadhafi Is Facing a Coalition of the Unwilling’

    Defenhttp://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,752521,00.htmlse Gates said that we have never done a no-fly zone like this.

    From Le Monde: Après l’intervention en Libye, où s’arrête la guerre “humanitaire” ?


    From Le Figaro:

    Les Américains sceptiques sur le leadership de la France


    Now this takes the cake, Le Figaro views this as a Franco-British alliance:
    Libye : l’alliance franco-britannique en action


    You get a vastly different picture in the US.


  4. Finally Dr. Bob, the US role as it is right now is not limited but preeminent. We have launched to most air-strikes, fired the most cruse missiles, even sent a couple of stealth fighters from the US to bomb. We have submarines, Marines on amphibious ships, an Admiral on an aircraft carrier out there, and all kind of planes in the sky over Libya flying recon. In fact, The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is heading out from Camp Lejeune to relieve the 22th MEU already off the coast of Libya. A MEU comes complete with Harrier jump jets, all kinds of helicopters and a couple of Ospreys, not to mention some salty Marines ready for action.

    Once again the narrative in the US has nothing to do with the truth. It is about something else.


  5. This operation has me feeling deeply uneasy. I don’t support it. The Libyan opposition is too amateurish and disorganized. We don’t know who they are. Even absent air power, Qaddafi can probably wipe them out with ground troops and mercenaries. What are our options at that point? Lose or escalate. Both options are intolerable.

    The French better take this mess over extremely quickly.

    I understand the desire not to allow the Arab uprising to suffer a terrible setback, so I think a case for an American interest can be made here. Susan Powers has written a lot that what the Arab world lacks more than anything – and what aggrieves it more than anything – is dignity. Self-determination, to whatever degree, will give them a great deal of dignity and will hopefully diffuse the resentments that persuade average Arabs to tolerate or support extremists. Look at Egypt – is there anyplace in the Arab world where Al Qaeda’s credibility is lower now than in Egypt? That said, I don’t see how we can afford this adventure in Libya, I don’t think a setback there is fatal – Egypt is vastly more important and, so far, is going surprisingly well (we’ll see how long that lasts). It feels like we’ve painted ourselves into a corner.

    Like I said, if the plan is to hand this mess over to the French ASAP, it’s a great plan. Nobody, then, will be surprised when it fails.


    • I don’t disagree with any of this. I cede the points made about confusion, messiness, quagmires, etc. But Benghazi could very well have been Obama’s Srebrenica. Bill Clinton has repeatedly said that not intervening in Rwanda was the worst call of his presidency. I still don’t see anything from the dissenters on this operation to offset the moral burden imposed once Gadhafi and his sons started talking about ‘rivers of blood in the streets.


  6. With all due respect, President Obama is about to have a Rwanda in La Cote d’Ivoire. And as we know that when Africans begin slaughtering each other they really out-do King Leopold. Plus the killings becomes transnational as well.

    As you know Gaddafi trained and armed Charles Taylor, Fodah Sankoh (RUF) and others back in the day. He is conducting his civil war just as the latter two did. Carbon copy. So we know the potential for chaos and out-right murder that he is capable of.

    Above I linked Sir Max Hasting’s responses to this military action. I will use his response as my offset. Talk about morality, why was/is he (Gaddafi) still getting millions of dollars in oil payments? I really think that we should begin there then apply military pressure if we must.


  7. This is very interesting, from the New York Times:

    Islamist Group Is Rising Force in a New Egypt

    “We are all worried,” said Amr Koura, 55, a television producer, reflecting the opinions of the secular minority. “The young people have no control of the revolution anymore. It was evident in the last few weeks when you saw a lot of bearded people taking charge. The youth are gone.”


  8. From the International Crisis Group:

    Open Letter to the UN Security Council on the Situation in Côte d’Ivoire

    The security and humanitarian situation in Côte d’Ivoire is rapidly deteriorating. Civil war in the country has been reignited; we are no longer warning of the risk of war, but urging swift action to halt the fighting and prevent ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocity crimes.



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