How the Politics of Intervention Encourage Bad Foreign Policy

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So far the Libya intervention is being cited by Obama's boosters as a success. But this creates the wrong incentives in how presidents use military power.

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U.S. President Barack Obama walks past Marine One. Reuters


Were Americans better stewards of the Constitution's system of checks and balances, President Obama would be suffering for his unilateral decision to take us to war in Libya, a violation of the War Powers Resolution and an usurpation of Congress' prerogative to declare war. Instead, military intervention is evaluated by an "ends justify the means" approach. When the rebels took Tripoli and Muammar Qaddafi fell without any American casualties, many pundits were quick to congratulate Obama on what they deemed a job well done.
 
Even a successful intervention, undertaken the wrong way, establishes a precedent whereby future presidents can ignore Congress and wage wars on their own. But what's gone on here is even worse. We aren't just evaluating foreign intervention with an "ends justify the means" attitude; we're failing to be rigorous about assessing the end game. In Libya, the utilitarian analysis of whether American intervention "worked" has proceeded as if the wisdom of a war can be judged in the news cycles immediately following its conclusion -- as if only the most visible and immediate consequences of waging a war matter. 

Senator Mark Kirk was calling the intervention an "unquestioned" and "undeniable success" the day after Tripoli fell. George E. Condon said last October, "No one in 2008 could have anticipated that the greatest triumphs and signature moments in Barack Obama's presidency would come in the realm of foreign affairs. But with the reports on Thursday of the capture and possible death of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Obama's successes overseas now dwarf his domestic accomplishments." Around the same time, Eleanor Clift wrote at The Daily Beast that "Obama has made some big bets on national security, and they've paid off handsomely. Republicans and some Democrats criticized his decision to intervene militarily in Libya: some saying he waited too long or shouldn't have put NATO in charge, others that he should have stayed out. But the news Thursday that longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi had been killed--his regime toppled at minimal cost and with no loss of American life--vindicates the president's decision."

Really?

What if Libya subsequently descended into chaos? What if al-Qaeda used the chaos to establish a stronghold there? What if the lack of stability had a negative impact on neighboring nations? What if seeing Qaddafi cut a deal with Bush, only to be ousted by Obama, causes other dictators to be less willing to give up weapons of mass destruction, or more eager to acquire them? Declaring Libya a success in its immediate aftermath was premature. Too many relevant facts weren't yet in evidence. But that narrative took hold. 

In the months since, a lot has transpired to complicate it. As a direct result of events in Libya, neighboring Mali has been in turmoil. According to French officials, al-Qaeda is using that crisis to expand. The alliance that took down Qaddafi did little to help the refugees that suffered in the aftermath of the campaign. Earlier this year, Doctors Without Borders reported the torture of detainees held by the forces we helped to empower. As Glenn Greenwald noted, "Ironically, those who are the >loudest advocates for these wars and then prematurely celebrate the outcome (and themselves) bear significant responsibility for these subsequent abuses: by telling the world that the invasion was a success, it causes the aftermath -- the most important part -- to be neglected. There is nothing noble about invading and bombing a country into regime change if what one ushers in is mass instability along with tyranny and abuse by a different regime: typically one that is much more sympathetic to the invading regime-changers."

Setting aside its unlawful start, was the war in Libya worth it? Was it, on the whole, a good thing to get rid of Qaddafi, by all accounts an authoritarian monster with plenty of blood on his hands? It's still too early to know. Says the Financial Times in an article published Wednesday, "An outbreak of violence along Libya's main north-west transport corridor has left more than a dozen people dead despite attempts by the interim authorities to head off the conflict." Three months from now the country could be subject to widespread chaos and civil war. Or maybe not.

What's absurd is the notion that the intervention should so soon be announced a foreign policy success, the outcome of which is already determined, as President Obama runs for reelection. To do so would be to establish this incentive system for future presidents: wage war anywhere on earth, and so long as the immediate, superficial results seem to be good, you'll benefit electorally from doing so, even if the ultimate outcome is contrary to American interests and hurts more people than it helped. We're fools if we create that incentive system, because politicians will exploit it, and in this realm, the consequences could not be more fraught and consequential.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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