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Opinion: Columnists

Counting the high cost of Obama's Libya, Syria debacles

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Gene Healy,Columnists,Barack Obama,Russia,Syria,George W. Bush,Analysis,Vladimir Putin,Libya

There’s an unhealthy dose of '80s nostalgia in the media reaction to the emerging Vladimir Putin-brokered settlement of the Syrian chemical weapons attack crisis.

The punditocracy seems transfixed on Cold-War era concerns like, "Have the Russians made our president look weak?" But there's a more important takeaway from last week's events.

The "Obama Doctrine" — or at least that part of the president's muddled foreign policy philosophy that favors humanitarian "wars of choice" — is finished. "Tomahawk humanitarianism" has had its day. The Libyan precedent won't be repeated — and it's a good thing, too.

New York Times columnist and armed international niceness advocate Nick Kristof called the 2011 air war in Libya one of "President Obama's finest moments in foreign policy." It was anything but.

Put aside the fact that the war was illegal by Obama's own terms, expressed on the campaign trail in 2007, since it "unilaterally authorize[d] a military attack in a situation that [did] not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

Our allegedly limited "kinetic military action" in Libya — which lasted some seven months — was also a disaster in humanitarian terms.

As political scientist Alan J. Kuperman recently explained, NATO intervention "increased the duration of Libya's civil war by about six times and its death toll by at least seven times, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors."

In a new article in the journal International Security, Kuperman tallies up the meager benefits and considerable costs: "Human rights conditions in post-intervention Libya," which according to Human Rights Watch include abuses "'so widespread and systematic that they may amount to crimes against humanity,' are considerably worse than in the decade preceding the war."

The Washington Post's recent look at Libya two years after the revolution describes a hellscape "governed" by hundreds of armed militias, where "even minor disputes escalate into frequent gun violence on the streets."

But with oil production nearly shut down — 250,000 barrels a day, down from 1.6 million just before the war — at least you can't accuse Obama of spilling "blood for oil."

Meanwhile, thousands of portable surface-to-air missiles, useful for shooting down civilian aircraft, have been "privatized," with some possibly in the hands of terrorists.

Outside Libya's borders, Kuperman notes, "the most obvious negative impact has been in Mali," where Tuareg soldiers with Moammar Gadhafi’s former security forces fled with their weapons and sparked an insurgency in the country’s north.

"Making matters worse, the rebellion in the north was quickly hijacked by local Islamist forces and elements of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians and making northern Mali by late 2012 "the largest territory controlled by Islamic extremists in the world."

Heckuva job, Barry.

Perversely, the president's Libyan adventure may have had the unintended consequence of exacerbating violence in Syria. That's because of what Kuperman calls "the moral hazard of humanitarian intervention," in which hopes for outside aid encourage risk-seeking behavior by those expecting rescue.

"When NATO started bombing Libyan forces in March 2011," Kuperman writes, "Syria's uprising was mainly nonviolent and its government's response — although criminally disproportionate — was relatively circumscribed.

But after Gadhafi's fall, "in the summer of 2011, Syria's uprising turned violent," with "a fifteenfold increase in the killing rate" by 2013.

If Libya is "a 'model intervention,'" Kuperman sums up, "then it is a model of failure."

It's unlikely that Obama has learned the right lessons from that debacle. But the good news is it's a failure that seems unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

Gene Healy, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president at the Cato Institute and author of "The Cult of the Presidency."
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