The New York Times reports that the Obama administration has committed itself to a policy of regime change in Libya and is now publicly contemplating military action, "The administration [has] declared all options on the table in its diplomatic, economic and military campaign to drive Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power." The talk is of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, which may sound like an incremental and moderate step. Defense Secretary Gates helpfully clarified to Congress that a no-fly zone "begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses." It is an act of war.
On first glance, the move appears to represent a dramatic departure for the Obama administration and, indeed, U.S. foreign policy. Until now the United States did not have a policy of overthrowing governments solely because they violated human rights. If we did, we would be at war with half the world, starting with China. Not even the neoconservatives at their most bellicose had such grand ambitions.
In reality, Obama probably does not either. More likely, Obama is moving against Libya because Qaddafi's actions have shocked the world's conscience and Obama felt the United States, as leader of the free world, ought to act.
In other words, his attempt to overthrow the Libyan government is not a principled stand for liberty; it is an opportunistic attempt to stay in the good graces of world opinion. It is otherwise unclear what U.S. interests Obama thinks are at stake in North Africa that would justify military force and regime change. It cannot be human rights: nothing in the administration's record would suggest it values human rights highly enough that their violation would prompt the overthrow of a government.
Don't get me wrong: toppling autocrats is a fine policy, in the cause of which sanctions, freezing assets, rhetorical support, even limited material support to the rebels and protesters is understandable, but I see no justifiable cause (yet) to get involved militarily.
Equally worrying is the administration's apparent beliefs about how to wield military force. Again, according to the Times, "Officials in Washington and elsewhere said that direct military action remained unlikely, and that the moves were designed as much as anything as a warning to Colonel Qaddafi and a show of support to the protesters."
In other words, the United States will pretend to threaten a military option in the hopes that Qaddafi, whom the administration apparently believes has the guile of Forrest Gump, will not read the New York Times, not call our bluff, and will obligingly surrender without a shot fired. Whoever suggested this policy option did not study Qaddafi, failed to wargame what happens after he calls our bluff, and has forgotten the Kosovo War and Milosevic's stubborn refusal to follow our script.
The administration looks to me like it is being driven by the CNN effect. Libya is in the headlines, dramatic events are afoot, so the administration believes it must do something, it must act, probably to demonstrate resolve, or exercise leadership. It isn't leadership to let the media drive your foreign policy. If the exact same thing were happening right now in Equatorial Guinea, no one would care and we would not be contemplating a no-fly zone.
The administration is blundering into an unnecessary crisis, setting unrealistic expectations about our ability to drive events in Libya, and exposing itself to the dangers of unplanned escalation and mission creep. If we're to have a grand strategy centered on building the liberal democratic peace -- which is not a terrible idea -- it should start from more considered reflection, not lurching overreaction to a crisis over which we have little control. Secretary Gates, ever the pragmatist, appeared to be walking back the administration's aggressiveness on Wednesday morning. He is probably aware that using foreign policy to bolster one's public standing has a venerable pedigree, but that does not make it wise.
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