It was absolutely predictable that Republicans would attack President Obama whatever he did in Libya, though Newt Gingrich, in his overeagerness, overreached by criticizing him for too explicitly opposite reasons. It was also likely that the anti-interventionist left, which sees (almost?) any use of American military power as imperialistic and unwarranted would likewise be opposed. It was less predictable that ordinary liberal Democrats would be so reluctant to back the president, and it is downright surprising for me, at least, to find myself, in the same camp as Joe Lieberman and John McCain, whose views on foreign policy I usually abhor, though I doubt if our temporary truce will last long.
The principal attack vehicle for both Democrats and Republicans is comparison to both Iraq wars; the first because it was the fruit of extensive preparation and the second because it failed (or embroiled us for a decade, which is pretty much the same thing). Use of the latter is particularly shameless since many of those criticizing it approved the second Iraq War, though at least the Democrats among them have the grace to claim they have learned from their mistake.
The main arguments against intervention are that it is a) open-ended; b) has unclear aims c) not under our control d) doesn’t provide principled criteria for such decisions in the future, and e) costs money. All of these are true and, while not irrelevant, do not take into account the exceptional circumstances.
This situation is virtually unique in recent times because the Libyan people have made a credible and nearly successful attempt to get rid of Qaddafi, which is why intervention is even being contemplated. Critics are absolutely right that we cannot and should not, even with international support, take down the most oppressive regimes in the world both because there are simply too many of them (pragmatic) and it would undermine the system of state sovereignty which, for better or worse, is the foundation for our international order (principled). However, under the unusual circumstances where a genuinely popular revolt has nearly brought down a universally despised dictator, intervention should at least be considered, especially since there is every reason to believe a true bloodbath would ensue if Qaddafi were to regain control. There can be no formula for determining when this point has been reached, but it is an unusual enough set of circumstance to eliminate most situations.
The other essential criterion is international legitimacy. For me, as for many others, the turning point was the support of the 22 other members of the Arab League. Not because they are an admirable and sagacious group but, rather, because their action was so unusual (unprecedented I believe) in calling for the ouster of a fellow Arab leader, and the fact that they are the closest thing to a regional representative. Moreover, in this case, it put them, also very unusually, on the side of the Arab masses, whose own contempt for Qaddafi is plain to see. This was surprisingly ratified by the UN, without the expected vetoes by Russia and China, which are normally ultra-protective of national sovereignty.
When this is understood as the tipping point, the other elements fall into place. We, along with the rest of the “international community” (which in this case justifies that phrase), are giving a push to one of the most abhorrent dictators in the world, on a par with Kim Jong-Il, Robert Mugabe, and a select group of others. We are not going after them, though, because their unfortunate subjects have not yet been able to nearly get rid of them. We and others have pledged that once he’s gone, Libya will revert to the Libyans, which may mean civil war, but that is not something we can or should interfere with. Our aim is both humanitarian and political, even though the latter reason is reminiscent of the repellent phrase “regime change,” which is justly in bad repute. The fact that the overwhelming majority of the world, both governmental and non-governmental, agrees with the action is essential and significant. This is indeed a very rare occurrence.
Thus, we admittedly do not have guarantees (Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld gave them in 2003 and they turned out to be worthless). The only agreed-upon criterion for the next government is that it is led by ABQ (anyone but Qaddafi). It may not be to our liking but that is not our affair. To date, costs are within the regular military budget.
We are participating in an internationally sanctioned and managed rescue campaign, not building a nation. That these circumstances are so compelling and so unusual justifies us fulfilling our responsibilities as a (particularly wealthy and powerful) world citizen, for the sake of the Libyan people, as a warning to other Qaddafis, and perhaps even as an encouragement to other unendurably oppressed nations.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy