Libya: No End in Sight

Monday, March 21, 2011 - 12:08 PM

A Libyan elderly man holds a portrait of a relative which, he says, was killed by the Gadhafi regime on March 6, 2011 outside the court house of Benghazi (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty)

On March 19th, an American president commences bombing in order to destabilize a dictator in a far-away region of the world. Our goals are to prevent him from harming his own people, to prevent his actions from spreading chaos in a region and to see regime change in his country.

In 2003, it was George W. Bush initiating our conflict in Iraq. In 2011, it was Barack Obama committing to a no-fly zone above Libya. The approach toward international collaboration has been different and the stated scope of this mission is different, but there is also a shiver that runs up my spine about what is the same: We’re entering a military conflict in the Arab world and don’t know our end goal.

President Bush had always stated a simple end-game: remove Saddam Hussein. More than seven years later, we are still embroiled in the security efforts of a country that has seen devastating loss of civilian life and civil strife since our stated mission was accomplished. President Obama’s objective seems just as straight-forward: Impose a no-fly zone, as approved by a host of international organizations. But what happens when a bloody ground war continues in Libya despite a successful no-fly zone? What happens if American military personnel are downed and captured? What happens if our allies lose heart, as the comments of former chair of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, suggest may quickly be possible? 

No doubt, the President and his military and diplomatic advisers have plans for each of those scenarios. Maybe those plans involve us getting more deeply involved in a Libyan civil war, or afterward in nation-building efforts. Maybe there is a clear way our allies take the lead to prevent this from looking like an American invasion. But all those scenarios are obscured from the public view of the American people. We don’t know what our leaders are committing to.

And that, in a way, is indicative of a real difference between 2003 and 2011. In 2003, the nation had a long stretch to evaluate and debate Bush’s march toward war. In the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2003, everyone weighed in. The evidence justifying the war was based on deception, the politics of fear were on display – but by the time we went to war, the President had been forced to outline an approach to international affairs. We knew the Bush Doctrine, and whether we agreed or disagreed, we knew what Bush wanted to do.

What will Obama commit to? What options is he setting aside as he commits to this operation? How far will this President go in pursuing this campaign? There isn’t a clear Obama Doctrine yet.

Ross Douthat of the Times has described this as “a very liberal intervention” highlighting the difference between the Obama approach and that of his predecessor: 

“In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.”

This description, which goes on to some criticism at the hands of this conservative columnist, is nevertheless as coherent an encapsulation of the Administration’s approach as any we hear from the Administration itself. It does portray a process for deciding military action that a liberal interventionist would support.

But it shouldn’t take a conservative columnist to explain Democratic foreign policy. The President’s “days, not weeks” expectation for this mission sounded farfetched the moment he said it. It’s something you say to mollify the public, not educate them; to dismiss concerns rather than engage them.

I am not opposed to military action around the world, though it must be a last resort, not a first one. In cases of emergency need, quickly corralling international support, as the President and Secretary of State Clinton did, is a must. But I don’t understand how far we are willing to go. I don’t believe the American people have been asked what they are willing to invest – to sacrifice – and for what goals. I am not convinced we’ve answered “why here, why now” and more than we’ve answered “why not everywhere?”

And those concerns take me back to 2003 again, which is what scares me most of all.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."


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Comments [11]

J Kurland from Pomona, NY

No, I must say we should not be in Libya. It was their people's uprising, as in Egypt and Tunisia, but the events have turned out differently. It's their civil war now and we should really not get involved despite our dislike for their leader. We didn't get involved when he brought down the plane years ago killing so many. And we shouldn't be there now. We can't keep getting involved all over the world. We have so many of our own problems.

Mar. 23 2011 09:24 AM
Helen E. from Brooklyn, New York

It is impossible for me to objective. Gaddafi murdered my husband and 258 other men, women, youth, children and unborn babies on Pan Am 103, and 11 people in their homes in Lockerbie, Scotland 22 years ago.He wiped out entire families.

We always knew that the bombing conspiracy had his approval; now, because of the uprising, two former members of his regime have defected and declared that he personally gave the orders to destroy that plane. It is possible to dream that some day he will actually be forced to stand trial for his multiple crimes against humanity He's been kidnapping, torturing and killing his own people for 40 years. (I've left out funding the IRA when they were bombing people -and messing around in Africa, supplying Sudan with money for the Janjaweed -the list is almost endless.) He reacted to this enormous uprising of his own people against his tyranny by declaring them drugged Al Qaida agents and publicly threatened them with annihilation before sending his mercenaries into a take no prisoners military campaign.

Yes, I'd like Congress to debate this issue -but I'm grateful that while we are having having this discussion in the safety and security of our homes, Libyans aren't being bombed in their beds and in their streets.

Mar. 22 2011 10:45 PM
Warren dAVIS from Morristown

Are these the same people asking for American help, that curse us as imperialist invaders when we intervened in other Arab countries; who danced in the streets after 9/11 and who pray for our downfall? These people cry "Where is the American help?" when it's in their best interest and expect our boys to risk their lives and die for their cause. And how long after we've finished there will we again become the American infidels?

Mar. 22 2011 06:13 PM
Coach Rich from Murray Hill

They say we Americans have short memories. Did many of you forget already that GWB's "permission" was built on lies and personal agendae. If we were not stuck in 2 senseless, costly, foolish wars we could do more to help those sacrificing their lives for a shot at some form of freedom like in Libya. I wish we had the moral courage to do more of these types of interventions, and the wisdom from history to avoid repeating Viet Nam, oh, and Iraq. Shame on all of you who want us to repeat Rwanda and the Balkans, not to mention other smaller bloodbaths like the Cote D'Ivoire. The cost is minimal the ROI high, unlike our other follies. We should do more.

Mar. 22 2011 06:04 PM

@JB from NYC:

There's one other small difference - President Bush sought Congressional authorization before he attacked Iraq in 2003.
Of course he didn't have a Nobel Peace Prize.

Mar. 22 2011 06:30 AM

Here's a wingnut with an extreme point of view:

(but probably just one of those mys-edited videos)

Mar. 22 2011 06:21 AM
dedelou from Briarwood

"No doubt, the President and his military and diplomatic advisers have plans for each of those scenarios. "
Brian was surprised at your comment but I don't. I do trust we have lots of plans . We probably have volumes on what to do , when. We are excellent at producing planning. If we look at the past 50 years now.. We have not stopped planning and implementing scenarios that keeps us in wars. What can we expect , dove Obama probably learn his first week in office that above all our industries , the war machine has to be oiled for it is our bread and butter.

Mar. 21 2011 10:53 PM
JB from NYC

Iraq was a rush to war because there was no impetus for the war besides 9/11, which had nothing to do with Iraq. also, weapons inspectors were on the ground in Iraq and since the main justification for the war was WMD, letting the inspectors complete their work would have been prudent. instead we planned and launched regime change from scratch without broad worldwide consensus.

none of those things are true in Libya. a regime change effort was already underway by the rebels, precipitated by legitimate peaceful protests that were in turn met with military strikes. the 'you broke it, you bought it' risk in aiding the rebels is shared evenly with other western powers this time. and lastly, unlike Iraq, Libya's dictator has a proven record of terrorism and his tenuous mental state does not inspire confidence that he would not be willing to engage in it again.

these are the differences I see with the Iraq invasion and the current engagement, granted amidst the similarities that you cite.

in terms of the questions you raise about the inconsistency of engaging in Libya but not elsewhere, I would say A. because of the broad worldwide consensus for intervention that is extremely rare; and B. unlike other places where secret police and thugs are used to execute street-level tactics to stifle dissent/commit atrocities, Gaddafi is waging a real military campaign, using instruments of war like tanks and planes, that advances nations can easily defeat. the gamble is that his military is all Gadaffi has going for him, and the risk is that he has enough popularity left in Tripoli and loyalists that are willing to fight on without war machinery, forestalling regime change enacted by the revolutionaries.

Mar. 21 2011 04:57 PM
Brian S. from NYC

"No doubt, the President and his military and diplomatic advisers have plans for each of those scenarios. "

Really? What makes you say that? I think you're pretty darn optimistic if you consider past precedent and past presidents.

GWB was pretty darn awful but he at least concerned himself with getting a thumbs up from Congress before stumbling into Iraq. All BHO needed was a green light from the UN and Arab League and the Nobel Prize winner was off and running in Libya. Yay.

Mar. 21 2011 04:44 PM
Justin Krebs from NYC

I'm with you, Karol, on "months, not years."

I would be willing to have a debate on whether we should take sides in a civil war in Libya, on whether nation-building there is our job, and why we wouldn't in some other countries.

Right now, the main public debate seems to be a peer-pressure game of one-ups-man-ship that goes something like this:

"Obama, you moved too slow."
"No, I didn't! Check this out!"

Mar. 21 2011 04:28 PM
Karol from NYC

I like that you gave Bush credit for the long discussion about the Iraq war. Agree or not about the war's objectives, I never understood the criticism that we "rushed to war." We slowlyyyyyyyy walked to war with so much deliberation.

Where was the deliberation here? Where was the congressional input and debate? But this was your best line:

"The President’s “days, not weeks” expectation for this mission sounded farfetched the moment he said it. It’s something you say to mollify the public, not educate them; to dismiss concerns rather than engage them."

SO true. Days not weeks? What planet is he on? I'm just hoping for months, not years.

Mar. 21 2011 01:24 PM

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