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Opinion: Columnists

Three years after U.S. intervention, Libya's an even bigger disaster

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Opinion,Gene Healy,Columnists,Benghazi,Libya,Foreign Policy

Libya suffered through an eventful St. Patrick's Day on Monday: car bomb attacks in Benghazi killed at least eight people, and the U.S. Navy SEALs scored “one for the Morning Glory” by capturing the runaway oil tanker bearing that name in order to return it to the Libyan government, such as it is.

Earlier this month, the North Korean-flagged tanker switched off its satellite transponder -- a device that could probably do without an “off” button -- and sneaked into Libya's largest oil port, whereupon Libyans linked to a breakaway eastern militia made off with millions of dollars in oil. But the return of the Morning Glory hardly fixes the problems confronting Libya.

Three years ago today, President Obama announced that America would “not stand idly by in the face of actions that undermine global peace and security;” he'd decided to order military action in “support for a set of universal values.” The next day, the bombing began.

How did that work out? Splendidly! says one of the principal architects of the war, former National Security Council official Samantha Power. Last summer, after becoming U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Power tweeted: “Great example: Qadhafi fell because the Libyan people bravely stood up, the U.S. stood strong, and the Arab League stood united. #Results.”

Let's test that self-congratulatory hashtag against what a top official from the previous administration once contemptuously called the “judicious study of discernible reality.” “Political Killings Still Plaguing Post-Qaddafi Libya” is the headline from the New York Times last week, reporting, “[M]ore than 100 prominent figures, senior security officials, judges and political activists have been assassinated in two years, and the wave of killings is decimating local leadership and paralyzing the government and security forces.” Unrest has likewise decimated Libya's oil production, and “militias hold 8,000 people in prisons.”

But didn't we at least stop a genocide? That's what State Department legal adviser Harold Koh suggested in an interview. Koh, previously an ardent opponent of presidential warmaking, gave Obama legal cover for Libya, arguing that bombing Libya didn't count as “hostilities” under the War Powers Resolution.

Koh defends that decision by insisting that “thousands of lives were saved” — which isn’t much of a legal argument. It’s also not true.

As political scientist Alan J. Kuperman pointed out at the time, Obama “grossly exaggerated the humanitarian threat to justify military action in Libya.”

Kuperman explained in another article, Moammar Gadhafi “did not perpetrate a ‘bloodbath’ in any of the cities that his forces recaptured from rebels prior to NATO intervention ... so there was virtually no risk of such an outcome if he had been permitted to recapture the last rebel stronghold of Benghazi.” Meanwhile, wrote Kuperman, “[b]y intervening, NATO enabled the rebels to resume their attack, which prolonged the war for another seven months and caused at least 7,000 more deaths.”

In the run-up to the war, George Will asked a pointed question: “Would not U.S. intervention in Libya encourage other restive peoples to expect U.S. military assistance?”

“Perhaps it would,” Will’s Washington Post colleague Jackson Diehl replied a week later, shortly before the bombing began. “[W]ould that be a disaster?”

It seems it was. As Kuperman observed, “NATO’s intervention on behalf of Libya’s rebels also encouraged Syria’s formerly peaceful protesters to switch to violence in mid-2011, in hopes of attracting a similar intervention. The resulting escalation in Syria magnified that country’s killing rate by tenfold.”

Three years later, Obama's Libyan adventure looks like a moral vanity project carried out by careless people who couldn't be bothered to worry about unintended consequences. #Results, indeed.

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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