By Prof. Michael Glennon —
When a policy works, history looks inevitable. Risks that loomed large when it was commenced disappear; the perils, in retrospect, seem to have been overblown. Impetuousness, in the glow of victorious hindsight, becomes boldness. Recklessness becomes far-sightedness.
Surviving a barrel-ride over Niagara Falls does not make it a good idea, however, and the happy outcome of Kaddafi’s removal does not make the Libyan project a sensible enterprise for the United States and its allies to have undertaken―let alone a model for future interventions.
A risk, whatever the ultimate outcome, remains a risk, and an undue risk, even when the worst does not come to pass, remains an undue risk. The foreseeable risks and costs, real and potential, that were associated with the Libyan action when it was undertaken, were excessive relative to the putative benefits.
What costs and risks were knowable on March 19 when the attacks were launched? Plenty:
- That Kaddafi had the capacity and intention to launch terrorist attacks against Western targets in retaliation for attacks against Libya―as he had in downing Pan Am flight 103.
- That the United States Treasury, facing default, was in no position to bankroll another pricey war (which ultimately cost the United States $896 million through July 31) with record numbers of Americans falling below the poverty level.
- That the message sent to Iran, North Korea and other nuclear weapons wannabe’s would be that Kaddafi, like Saddam, made a fatal mistake in giving up his nuclear program―not exactly the right incentive to promote non-proliferation.
- That the United States and its (few real) allies were already stretched thin in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which was going well, and that joining another war in Libya could only undermine those efforts.
- That Kaddafi’s arsenal included up to 20,000 portable ground-to-air SA-7 missiles capable of wreaking havoc on Western civilian air traffic if they fell into the wrong hands (“one of the things that keep me up at night,” an assistant secretary of state said).
- That the war would likely have to be waged without congressional approval―contrary to the President’s pledge never to do such a thing.
- That Kaddafi could be ousted only by transgressing the limits imposed by the Security Council―which permitted force only to protect civilians, as the Russians reminded the Security Council―and thus undermining “R2P” principles, which, as formulated by the Secretary General’s High-Level Panel, precluded humanitarian intervention by states and coalitions (of the sort that had occurred in Kosovo).
- That any supposed “hand off” of the war to NATO would be a transparent ruse, as quickly became apparent once NATO supposedly took over.
- That Libya’s long-standing history of racism could generate violence toward blacks upon a rebel victory (as it did, with mass arrests of black men and dozens of gruesome killings by the rebels).
- That on top of such knowns there were also significant unknowns―including the rebels’ broader commitment to human rights (which has turned out to be shaky), their ability to get along in forming a pluralistic government in a country with no public institutions or tradition of democratic governance, and Kaddafi’s supporters’ ability to wage an Iraqi-style counter-insurgency campaign following formal defeat.
There was, of course, another side of the ledger, a set of potential benefits to be balanced. At the time the decision to attack was made, it looked like a good thing to protect Libyan civilians in the face of Kaddafi’s threats; a good thing to get on the right side of the Arab spring and make up lost ground after vacillation in Tunisia, Bahrain, and Egypt; and a good thing, all things considered, to be rid of Kaddafi. Still….Kaddafi’s threats, relied upon by the White House as the casus belli, appear to have been directed at those who had taken up arms against him, not at civilian residents of Benghazi. It’s possible, moreover, that Kaddafi’s threats were just that―threats―that he had no intention of carrying out; Kaddafi, as Western leaders have had no hesitancy to point out, has proven to be a congenital liar. (His broken promise to Nicolas Sarkozy to buy Rafale jets―reportedly made in 2007 after Sarkozy permitted Kaddafi to pitch his tent on the grounds of the Elysee Palace and extend his Paris visit―might not have been entirely forgotten when Sarkozy took the lead in ousting him.) Whether United States participation in the bombing has in fact helped recover face lost on the Arab street through earlier diplomatic dithering remains to be seen; there is, among other things, the little matter of Syria that might not be irrelevant to Arab thinking about how pure Western humanitarianism really is. And while it will be good to have Kaddafi gone, it’s also good to have Saddam gone―which hardly makes the play worth the candle.
Success is the standard by which the wisdom of a policy is popularly judged. But a happy outcome is the wrong test. The right test is whether, at the time the policy was commenced, the likely benefits outweighed likely costs and risks in light of what policy-makers knew and should have known. Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Libyan adventure, the financial, institutional, credibility, humanitarian, and strategic costs and risks that were incurred at the time the war against Libya was started far outweighed the potential benefits. Whether the war turns out to have ”worked,” in historical perspective, will be irrelevant. History occasionally makes some gamblers lucky. But history never turns a bad bet into a good one.