What The Washington Post Neglects to Mention When It Urges War

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The newspaper's editorial board now insists that NATO involvement in Libya compels action in a neighboring country.

mali full.jpg

Reuters

Editorial boards love to use the word "must." That's how the Washington Post's unsigned campaign on behalf of intervention in Libya began. "Moammar Gaddafi must pay for atrocities," the headline stated. Even if bringing about the desired outcome required war? Or scores of dead innocents? Or destabilizing the region? Or empowering Islamists? That particular editorial didn't say. "Must" is handy like that. It obscures the full consequences of the course being advocated. An admonition that "the U.S. Congress should declare war to oust Moammar Gaddafi" would spark debate. But saying a dictator "must pay" for his atrocities? Who could object?

The hawks are now circling again: "NATO nations must help restore order in Mali," the editorial board insisted last week:

THE UNITED STATES and its NATO allies took a big risk in Libya last year -- not by supporting the rebellion against dictator Moammar Gaddafi but by doing little to help the victorious rebels with security after the war. Libya is now struggling to hold itself together as its various tribes and militia factions resist central authority; meanwhile, former Gaddafi fighters and weapons are spilling into neighboring countries. The most severe trouble has erupted not in Libya but in neighboring Mali, a poor desert nation that had sustained a fragile democracy for more than two decades. Ethnic Tuareg fighters, many of whom were employed as mercenaries by the Gaddafi regime, streamed back across the border this year with abundant supplies of weapons...

More than the fragile health of African democracy is at stake. Mali has become a transit point for drug trafficking to Europe, and an al-Qaeda branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is active. An al-Qaeda ally called Ansar Dine has been capitalizing on the Tuareg rebellion, sweeping into conquered towns, raising a black flag and announcing the imposition of sharia law. Hundreds of Christians living in Timbuktu were reportedly forced to flee the city.

Had only the editorial board told us before the intervention that it might create anarchy in Libya, empower an Al Qaeda ally, destabilize the region, and necessitate NATO intervention in another country!

What it published instead is instructive. 

On March 18, 2011, the editorial board endorsed President Obama's assertion that the region would be destabilized if Gaddafi stayed in power, but insisted that America could not fight a war on behalf of Libya's rebels. On March 21, the editorial board avowed that Obama had no need to get congressional permission for his actions in Libya due to their limited nature. The next day, it asserted that "because of its limits, the military intervention threatens to perpetuate a stalemate that leaves Mr. Gaddafi in power, and that over time would create both a greater humanitarian crisis and more serious threats to U.S. and European interests," and endorsed a warning by Hillary Clinton that if Gaddafi stayed, "Libya could become 'a giant Somalia,' riven by tribal warfare and anarchy that allows al-Qaeda to create a stronghold." As it turned out, the Obama approach didn't leave Gaddafi in power; the humanitarian crisis and destabilization did happen.

The editorial board spent the next couple months insisting that Obama was putting unsustainable strain on France and Britain by refusing to do more, another argument that events proved wrong, and then in June the editorial board argued that Obama was doing enough in Libya that his actions were a violation of the law, but that he should keep doing it anyway.

That brings us to the July 13, 2011 editorial, "Preparing for a new Libya." The Post offered the Obama Administration advice: Get frozen funds to the rebels. "The Benghazi-based administration has shown itself to be moderate and responsible, and it has committed itself repeatedly to an agenda of democracy and personal freedoms," the editors wrote. "Access to funds will make it more stable and more prepared to take charge of the country when the Gaddafi regime finally goes." The editors also urged a bigger U.S. diplomatic presence in Benghazi.

That was the extent of their advice.

Only after Gaddafi fell did the editors give a fuller picture of the challenges that would emerge even in a rebel victory:

The threats begin with the more than two dozen rebel militias that participated in the fighting and that now coexist uneasily in Tripoli and other cities. Not all have been integrated into the chain of command under the transitional council; some commanded by Islamists have received their own weapons and funding from the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. The often-undisciplined militias have abused and even tortured prisoners and suspected Gaddafi supporters, Human Rights Watch reported. Mr. Gaddafi himself may have been killed after having been captured on Thursday.

Added to this volatile mix are huge stockpiles of weapons, including thousands of surface-to-air missiles and chemical arms, acquired by the Gaddafi regime. Many have been unsecured for weeks, and some have already been smuggled across Libya's borders.

Do you think the average Washington Post reader might have thought differently about the intervention had the early editorials stated, "Gaddafi must pay for his crimes, even though once he is ousted from power dozens of rebel militias, some run by Islamists, will exist uneasily beside one another, with huge stockpiles of weapons likely to be smuggled across the border"? What if they'd also stated, "And by participating, the U.S. will be morally obligated to intervene in a neighboring country few Americans presently know exists should it be destabilized"?

That brings us back to last week's editorial. "THE UNITED STATES and its NATO allies took a big risk in Libya last year," the editors wrote, "not by supporting the rebellion against dictator Moammar Gaddafi but by doing little to help the victorious rebels with security after the war." As if the Washington Post editorial board, an influential entity that urged the military campaign, foresaw its dangers all along. In fact, the editors warned about the guns smuggled over the border after it was too late to do anything about them, never urged more postwar security in its summer editorial about "preparing for a new Libya," urged President Obama on even though it was clear he wasn't going to invest heavily in Libyan security after the war, and certainly never anticipated the need for a NATO campaign in Mali to mitigate the after effects of the Libyan action.

I am not a foreign-policy expert. I couldn't have told you, before the fact, what would happen in Libya. I can observe that influentials who present themselves as experts when urging American action abroad turn out to be awful at predicting the consequences of the policies they advocate. It was true in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's true in Libya, and if we send troops to Mali the Post may well be telling us a year later that our actions there require a troop commitment someplace else. It would be nice if, even occasionally, these botched predictions turned out to be excessively pessimistic. As it turns out, the only consistent thing about them is that they significantly underestimate the costs and unintended consequences of American involvement.

As Mark Adomanis recently put it in Forbes, "What will it take to convince the Washington Post editorial board that military interventions are, by their very nature, inherently destabilizing? Shockingly, the use of massive violence (which is what characterizes even the most 'surgical' air campaigns) always has negative consequences associated with it. How many more times does an American-led war have to horrifically backfire for us to understand that, if not impossible, it is extremely difficult to ensure that the benefits, such as they are, outweigh the inevitable, unavoidable, and often unforeseeable consequence of American military action?" I hope that lesson is learned soon, and that we start waging foreign wars only as an unfortunate necessity. Humanitarian impulses can be channeled into saving lives a lot more efficiently elsewhere.

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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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