Blogs: The Skeptics

The War America Ignores

Don’t Blame a Weaker Military on Money

Sorry, North Korea: Kim Jong-un Isn't God

Libya and the 5 Stages of U.S. Intervention

The Skeptics

In the case of Libya, roughly three weeks elapsed between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s public acknowledgement that the U.S. might get involved militarily and Obama’s announcement to the American people that the United States had joined the effort to impose a no-fly zone in Libya. This left little time for a debate over the wisdom and mechanisms of U.S. intervention, even though many were in fact critical of the Obama administration’s decision. Later, NATO’s mission would expand without any real debate whatsoever, from enforcing a no-fly zone to supporting the rebels in ousting Muammar el-Qaddafi. Regime change, of course, was the very thing that led to the civil chaos that has allowed the Islamic State to take root in Libya.

 

Stage 3: Premature Declaration of Victory

The same inclination that motivates intervention in the first place is what drives the United States to claim victory on the basis of emotional, rather than strategic, calculations. Who can forget Bush’s dramatic “Mission Accomplished” speech on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln six weeks after the invasion began? Saddam Hussein, the target of so much outrage since the first Gulf War, had been deposed, and his statue in Baghdad toppled. But Bush’s declaration was wildly premature; the real battle for Iraq had just begun. Obama would later double down on that declaration of victory, telling Americans that “The last American soldier[s] will cross the border of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success. . . That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end.”

The Obama administration followed the same course with Libya. In August of 2011, after rebels ousted the Qaddafi regime, U.S. officials called it a “model intervention.” Obama boasted that “Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives,” and Clinton described it as an example of “smart power” in action. In October, when the rebels finally captured and killed Qaddafi, Clinton crowed, “We came, we saw, he died!” As with Iraq, there was little indication that the Obama administration imagined that the swift “victory” in Libya might later prove to be something else.

 

Stage 4: Attention Deficit Disorder and Memory Loss

Declaring victory cleans the slate in American politics, allowing presidents to drop the issue and move along to the next pressing issue. Without presidential pronouncements and U.S. military actions to follow, television drops the story and the newspapers move it to the back pages. What happens after a tyrant is toppled isn’t nearly as newsworthy as the chase to kill him in the first place. Then new fires break out, attracting the attention of the president and the media. Within weeks, the links between American actions and their consequences start to become obscured. Within a few months, it’s easy for the average American to forget the intervention ever happened.

What’s less clear, of course, is why political leaders forget so quickly. When Bush declared victory in Iraq, the United States was still deeply enmeshed in Afghanistan. When the Obama administration declared victory in Libya, the United States was not only still in Afghanistan, but Iraq continued to boil even as U.S. forces were withdrawing. One potential explanation is that American outrage first generates short-term thinking and rash decisions, and then spawns attention deficit disorder, provoking the impulse to move quickly from one emergency to the next. Under such conditions, it would be surprising if there were much room for historical reflection and lesson learning. Another, more cynical, possibility is that like the stock market, American politics only rewards short-term thinking.

 

Stage 5: Repeat. . . Endlessly

Whatever the cause, the potent combination of outrage and memory loss paves the way for an endless repetition of the same mistakes. The Obama administration talks about military intervention in Libya today as if the previous intervention had never happened. When the Pentagon discusses plans to conduct air strikes, it does so without betraying any sense that there could be anything to learn from Libya’s recent history or the past fourteen years of the failed “war on terror.” Why, exactly, would the administration use almost exactly the same plan to prevent chaos today that helped create the conditions for chaos in 2011?

Outrage, of course, is a normal human reaction to pain and suffering. And to many, America’s desire to confront the world’s evils is a noble impulse worthy of an exceptional nation. The refusal to accept the world as it is, however, has no place in international relations because it prevents the clear-eyed assessment of costs and benefits required to make foreign policy. As understandable as it is to want to prevent oppression and punish rogue regimes, endless intervention has caused more problems than it has solved and at great cost.

If the United States wants to break the cycle, it must wake up and accept that it cannot remake the world through military intervention.

Pages

Washington's Dangerous Addiction to Military Power

The Skeptics

In the case of Libya, roughly three weeks elapsed between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s public acknowledgement that the U.S. might get involved militarily and Obama’s announcement to the American people that the United States had joined the effort to impose a no-fly zone in Libya. This left little time for a debate over the wisdom and mechanisms of U.S. intervention, even though many were in fact critical of the Obama administration’s decision. Later, NATO’s mission would expand without any real debate whatsoever, from enforcing a no-fly zone to supporting the rebels in ousting Muammar el-Qaddafi. Regime change, of course, was the very thing that led to the civil chaos that has allowed the Islamic State to take root in Libya.

 

Stage 3: Premature Declaration of Victory

The same inclination that motivates intervention in the first place is what drives the United States to claim victory on the basis of emotional, rather than strategic, calculations. Who can forget Bush’s dramatic “Mission Accomplished” speech on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln six weeks after the invasion began? Saddam Hussein, the target of so much outrage since the first Gulf War, had been deposed, and his statue in Baghdad toppled. But Bush’s declaration was wildly premature; the real battle for Iraq had just begun. Obama would later double down on that declaration of victory, telling Americans that “The last American soldier[s] will cross the border of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success. . . That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end.”

The Obama administration followed the same course with Libya. In August of 2011, after rebels ousted the Qaddafi regime, U.S. officials called it a “model intervention.” Obama boasted that “Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives,” and Clinton described it as an example of “smart power” in action. In October, when the rebels finally captured and killed Qaddafi, Clinton crowed, “We came, we saw, he died!” As with Iraq, there was little indication that the Obama administration imagined that the swift “victory” in Libya might later prove to be something else.

 

Stage 4: Attention Deficit Disorder and Memory Loss

Declaring victory cleans the slate in American politics, allowing presidents to drop the issue and move along to the next pressing issue. Without presidential pronouncements and U.S. military actions to follow, television drops the story and the newspapers move it to the back pages. What happens after a tyrant is toppled isn’t nearly as newsworthy as the chase to kill him in the first place. Then new fires break out, attracting the attention of the president and the media. Within weeks, the links between American actions and their consequences start to become obscured. Within a few months, it’s easy for the average American to forget the intervention ever happened.

What’s less clear, of course, is why political leaders forget so quickly. When Bush declared victory in Iraq, the United States was still deeply enmeshed in Afghanistan. When the Obama administration declared victory in Libya, the United States was not only still in Afghanistan, but Iraq continued to boil even as U.S. forces were withdrawing. One potential explanation is that American outrage first generates short-term thinking and rash decisions, and then spawns attention deficit disorder, provoking the impulse to move quickly from one emergency to the next. Under such conditions, it would be surprising if there were much room for historical reflection and lesson learning. Another, more cynical, possibility is that like the stock market, American politics only rewards short-term thinking.

 

Stage 5: Repeat. . . Endlessly

Whatever the cause, the potent combination of outrage and memory loss paves the way for an endless repetition of the same mistakes. The Obama administration talks about military intervention in Libya today as if the previous intervention had never happened. When the Pentagon discusses plans to conduct air strikes, it does so without betraying any sense that there could be anything to learn from Libya’s recent history or the past fourteen years of the failed “war on terror.” Why, exactly, would the administration use almost exactly the same plan to prevent chaos today that helped create the conditions for chaos in 2011?

Outrage, of course, is a normal human reaction to pain and suffering. And to many, America’s desire to confront the world’s evils is a noble impulse worthy of an exceptional nation. The refusal to accept the world as it is, however, has no place in international relations because it prevents the clear-eyed assessment of costs and benefits required to make foreign policy. As understandable as it is to want to prevent oppression and punish rogue regimes, endless intervention has caused more problems than it has solved and at great cost.

If the United States wants to break the cycle, it must wake up and accept that it cannot remake the world through military intervention.

Pages

Pages