There are obvious differences between the Iraq war and the Libyan clusterfuck. George W Bush never got a definitive UN Resolution, pushed for the war on false pretenses, got a Congressional vote beforehand, argued for it for well over a year, and sent tens of thousands of troops to invade and occupy the country. Obama went via the UN, never got a Congressional vote, orchestrated an air-campaign "on the fly", as Bob Gates tartly put it, and vowed that there would never be US military boots on the ground. The casus belli – an imminent mass slaughter in Benghazi – is far more open and transparent than Bush's empirically-challenged logic about Iraq's WMDs.
And yet, my own instant worry is that the long term consequences could be as disastrous as they are unknowable. By directly preventing a bloody resolution of the Libyan fight for power, the US has assumed responsibility in many ways for the outcome and has simultaneously made a long civil war possible. As weeks, not days, pass by, the temptation to actively intervene on one side will be enormous.
It appears that I am not the only one with Iraq flashbacks:
For those of us who were deeply engaged in the Iraq war, it is hard not to hear the echoes and recognize the potential pitfalls in America’s new military intervention… The Bush administration went into Iraq with a multitude of objectives, from finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction to building a new democratic country in the heart of the Middle East. But even at the highest levels, U.S. officials disagreed over how central the creation of a democratic Iraq was to American ambitions and interests.
This ambiguity of purpose helped create a serious dilemma: The United States undertook a complicated, multifaceted occupation and nation-building project without the planning and resources required for it to succeed. Yet, even after Obama’s speech Monday at the National Defense University, it remains unclear what the president considers an acceptable outcome in Libya.
Engaging in military action and claiming a desire for regime change, yet expressing unwillingness to use force to achieve that aim, even while providing support to those seeking to oust Gaddafi — this is a recipe for confusion, both within the administration and among the public.
It sure is. My concern is that this war was begun without any serious, far-ranging discussion of what should happen after the massacre was prevented. White House sources tell me there will never be boots on the ground, and that the no-fly zone will be NATO's responsibility, not just America's. They also tell me there will be no arms funneled to the rebels. The next phase will, apparently, be like Iraq between the first and second wars against Saddam: a no-fly zone, and an economic, diplomatic squeeze until Qaddafi pops out of Libya like the pus in a ripe zit.
But the Iraq experience surely shows the severe limits to this pop-the-zit strategy.
The sanctions and a decade-long no-fly zone were, after all, not sufficient to force Saddam from power. Dictators have learned the art of hanging on the hard way, and Qaddafi is not the type to give up. We've already seen the massive superiority of Qaddafi's armed forces, despite the successful targeting of munition sites and tanks. We are also now witnessing the classic asymmetrical response to a super-power. Qaddafi's forces are now in the white pick-up trucks used by the rebels, making it harder and harder to target them from the skies. He is arming those civilians loyal to him with rifles. If the struggle for power ends up within major cities, like Tripoli and Benghazi, the allies will be toothless. Bombing densely populated areas would inevitably lead to large civilian casualties, and the US is not Israel in this regard. It is not acting in self-defense; it is acting in an attempt at long-range social and political engineering. And, of course, the last thing the US wants is to kill Libyan civilians in order to save them.
We also learn from yesterday's NYT that the Libyan intervention is designed to impress the Iranian coup regime. But what if the no-fly zone and the highly accurate bombing campaign leave Qaddafi in power? Does anyone think that would scare Khamenei? Wouldn't it actually do the opposite – by showing, as dramatically as in Iraq and Afghanistan, how Western military superiority is highly limited in its potential to affect the internal affairs of foreign countries?
And that's where the fear comes in. If Qaddafi survives and even regains control of much of the country, the temptation will be to ratchet up military pressure. Reflexive war mongers like McCain and Lieberman will always fight for another war in the name of good versus evil. And have no doubt that a man like Romney will cite Qaddafi's survival as part of a critique of Obama's "weakness". That political dynamic can often lead to the temptation of a covert war, surreptitiously arming the rebels via Egypt and training them with Special Forces or the CIA. And there is, alas, evidence that this has already happened.
This is how many wars start – by initiating relatively minor interference with good, even noble intentions, before getting sucked into a far deeper role in an intractable conflict. Resisting that temptation will be the real test of Obama's strength. He is, after all, only president because he opposed a dumb war in Iraq. He surely doesn't want history recording that he started another one.
(Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen (R) testify during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee March 31, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The hearing was to examine the ongoing military operation in Libya. By Alex Wong/Getty Images.)