What The Washington Post Neglects to Mention When It Urges War

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

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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.

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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