War in Libya: Why We Had No Choice

The U.S., and Obama, have been compelled by their place in the world

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King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain tried pacifying his subjects with cash. When that didn't work, he used bullets. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen offered to step down in 2013, after a paltry twenty-three years in power. When that didn't work, he used tear gas and live ammunition. When Libyan Colonel Moammar Qaddafi's populace turned on him, he bombed them.

There are many ways to describe U.S. policy toward the Arab Spring. "Cowboy diplomacy" is not one of them. President Obama gambled that Tripoli would collapse under the weight of a tyrant 40 years overdue for retirement, as Tunis and Cairo did before it. The president avoided every appearance of hostility, imperialism, or American interest in the region. His public statements sidestepped democracy, calling only for "reform" and "restraint." And yet it has come to war.

But why Libya? The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg calls Libya a "seventh-tier problem for the United States." And while he is right that Qaddafi poses no threat to America, circumstances may very well dictate action. Here is the rare alignment of a terrible, tyrannical head of state, an oppressed people pressing for change, and formal censure not only from the West, but also the Arab League. However tarnished, the U.S. is the last superpower, and in times of crisis, the world still looks to it. The choice was to bear witness to an atrocity, or to end it. President Obama chose the latter.

The argument follows that the United States is somehow hypocritical for bombing Libya but not the other oppressed Islamic nations using violence against its citizens. The implication of this position is that the choice is either war everywhere at once, or no war at all; the president appears to have answered it with a policy based on patience and opportunity, one country at a time. Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak fell without U.S. meddling or force. When Qaddafi falls, no one can credibly argue that America was the driving force behind these changes.

The strength of the president's policy is also its weakness. By waiting weeks, and then only after submitting for United Nations approval, Qaddafi positioned the Libyan chessboard to his liking. He has placed human shields so as to maximize civilian casualties and capitalize on the resulting press. He seized and fortified the town of Ajdabiya and blitzed Benghazi, provisional capital of the interim government.

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An immediate decapitation strike might have avoided countless civilian deaths. Now, Qaddafi can play a game of attrition. No-fly zones are not bloodless affairs, and are often measured in years rather than months. Every innocent killed will be daily paraded for cameras. It took the Arab League less than 24 hours to rescind its support for Operation Odyssey Dawn. Denunciations will only grow more strident. Without delicate statesmanship, unstable regimes may balance themselves on the back of careless Western intervention.

In the interim, however, protesters elsewhere in the Arab world might be emboldened by the coalition's willingness to prevent atrocity. There is some cleverness in striking Libya instead of Bahrain or Yemen, and this cleverness does, in fact, take U.S. interests into account. U.S. Naval Forces Command is headquartered in Bahrain, and the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet operates from a base in Juffair, five miles from the capital city. If the ruling House of Al Khalifa falls, America will have made no enemies by errant missiles, and may count on a continued military ally in the region.

Yemen, meanwhile, is the interesting case where the U.S. is already waging a secret war. As revealed in the WikiLeaks release of diplomatic cables, President Saleh is a monster, but he's our monster. In 2009, he told Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, "I have given you an open door on terrorism, so I am not responsible." As reported by Dana Priest of the Washington Post, the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command is kinetic on the ground and in the air in Yemen, targeting al-Qaeda agents and suspected terrorists. Just as in Bahrain, the goal is for the Yemeni regime to change around the U.S. footprint, but not because of it.

Why Libya? Because the struggling revolutions elsewhere need time, and Libya buys that time. The winds of change that swept through Tunisia and Egypt have slowed, and need invigoration. The departure of Moammar Qaddafi and the dawn of a new Libya will provide it. President Obama has taken a long view of the Arab Spring. Change will require patience, and patience is now policy.

Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters