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A Missed Opportunity in Libya

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Just a few final thoughts on the opportunity I believe we missed in Libya. To begin with, many of the counterarguments to a U.S. military intervention are sound. As I've already agreed, a no-fly zone is unlikely to be decisive. The same holds true for a limited air strike of the kind I suggested. The advantage of the latter is that it very clearly signals our support for the anti-Gadhafi forces, who we could then supply with less-visible logistical and material support, while allowing us to avoid the long-term commitment of forces and resources of a no-fly zone. But in both cases, the risk of escalation is high, because taking a side in a civil war inherently means being invested in its outcome.

Other arguments that have been used to oppose an intervention are less convincing. In particular, the comparison to Iraq is misplaced -- first, because of a disparity of scale. Not to be cavalier about what remains an act of war and therefore subject to war's unpredictable logic, but Moammar Gadhafi's Libya is not Saddam Husssein's Iraq. Yes, it's still a can of worms, but it's a much smaller can of worms.

The even greater disparity is that of historical context. The invasion of Iraq was an attempt to jumpstart history. A limited intervention in Libya was an opportunity to give history a small nudge to help it over the hump. In so doing, we would have gotten back to our historical roots -- abandoned during the Cold War interlude and the immediate post-Cold War resettling -- as a revolutionary power, as opposed to a status quo power. The common refrain over the past few months has been the need to get on the right side of history. That ignores the way in which history has gotten on our side -- for the first time in a generation and in the last bastion of dictatorship. The fundamental difference between what the Middle East is experiencing today and what the Bush administration tried to achieve in 2003 is the difference between supporting self-determination and imposing it.

So, yes, there were risks -- of escalation, of blowback, of being accused of imperial unilateralism. But this seemed like a moment when we could have afforded to be less risk-averse than many of the opponents of an intervention allowed.

Having said that, and contrary to what some of the more vocal advocates of an intervention are charging, our inaction will not be catastrophic, either for U.S. leadership or the region. In fact, there is something to be admired about the Obama administration's disciplined adherence to its own multilateral rule set. That's a different kind of leadership, and although it might be interpreted as weakness in some quarters, it is also the kind of wake-up call that is needed if we are serious about bringing the era of global free-riding on U.S. security guarantees to an end.

If President Barack Obama made one misstep, it was in allowing his rhetoric to get out in front of his willingness to act, something of a habit for him. The words, "Gadhafi must go," mean something very different coming from the president of the United States than they do coming from the president of any other country in the world. And the danger still exists that, having now firmly rejected unilateral action, with all the salutary effects that implies for the global order, the U.S. will yet again reverse course and take unilateral action if events outrun the U.N. Security Council's willingness to intervene. If so, I would suggest that in future Obama's advisers keep him away from corners or paint, or both.