I Tried to Talk Us Out of Libya

Back when Libya first started to fall apart in February 2011, I noted that Gaddafi was nearing the point where hanging from a lamppost might be an attractive alternative to an exile in Pyongyang. In the beginning, I wasn’t focused on possible U.S. intervention. I was just enjoying some of the more creative protest signs.

I was still cautiously hopeful that momentum from the Arab Spring might lead to some more representative government in the Arab world, with a corresponding drop in terrorism. But when Europe started calling for U.S. intervention in Libya, I was immediately resentful.

People complain about the U.S. intervening all over the globe, but when things get out of hand and innocent people are getting killed there is always pressure on Washington to do something. When we don’t, as in Rwanda, we get blamed for that, too. So, other than reimposing sanctions, what are we supposed to do about Libya? Are we supposed to take over their air space?

Personally, I think Gaddafi is on his way out, and the U.S. is all he has left to justify his rule. If we start pushing him out, it will only give him hope and a rationale for staying.

Obviously there is some limit of violence beyond which we can’t just sit back and passively watch. But this is another case where I resent our role as the sole superpower. Why can’t the Europeans take over Libyan air space if that is what the international community feels needs to be done? And who’s offering to pay the bill for any intervention?

Before long, I raised the key question: “Do we even know who we want to win?”

As pressure mounted on the president, I urged him to resist.

I’m nervous. but so far I am quite proud of how Barack Obama and Robert Gates have resisted calls to get our country overly involved in the situation in Libya. I fear reports of Gaddafi’s demise have been premature. But, probably a much more important consideration than Gaddafi’s fate is the general lack of knowledge about what might follow his regime. I am not concerned about radical Islamists taking over. I don’t think that is likely. I am concerned about no one taking over. I haven’t seen any compelling evidence that there are the makings of a functional government that can unite the country waiting in the wings.

Of course, it turned out that no one took over, which turned Libya into a failed state in which radical Islamists run rampant. But, while there was still time, I kept urging the president to stick to his guns.

The truth is that Libya really isn’t our problem or our responsibility. It’s all fine for our government to call for Gaddafi to step down. But we should not interject ourselves in what is likely to be a civil war to see who can control Libya’s vast oil reserves.

I’ll keep saying it because it needs to be said. It would be easy for Obama to really screw up his presidency by getting Libya wrong. So far, he’s right on the money.

I was comforted that both Robert Gates and the president were standing up to thoughtless interventionists like Joe Lieberman.

Maybe Lieberman should call his pal Silvio Berlusconi and ask him how Italy will do without access to their oil fields in Libya for a prolonged period as the country descends into tribal rivalry and chaos.

What disturbs me is the absolutely thoughtless way that so many Americans and American leaders are willing to commit our country to the use of violence and meddling in other countries. In some cases it is justifiable, but can someone do a week of research before they start sending in the 82nd Airborne?

I mean, Jesus, seriously…

Today, Libya is operating at one-tenth of their oil-producing capacity. This was something I kept warning about:

We have marginal corporate interests in the country, and we don’t want to see their oil off the market if that is going to lead to severe energy inflation in Europe. But that argues for stability, not for a sustained period of civil war and uncertainty. Getting Gaddafi to resign does nothing to assure stability. Who says that his opponents are unified? Who says they will agree to split the spoils equitably? Saddam ruled his country the way he did not only because he was a sadist but because the country would tear apart at the seams without some heavy-hand to keep things in order. The same may well be true about Gaddafi. I’m not opposed to the idea of democracy for Libyans, but we shouldn’t get too invested in the idea. There’s no evidence that Libya is ripe for parliamentary democracy. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, let’s make sure we’re not to blame.

And I wouldn’t stop:

Let me say this again. We don’t know what kind of leadership would emerge from this opposition if they were to prevail, but they don’t even appear to have operational leadership in the field. We have no compelling reason to commit ourselves to this fight. It’s a mistake. And the president has been pushed very far out on a limb here, probably through a false sense of momentum arising from the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. It will be painful to walk this back, but unless Hillary Clinton discovers a compelling, organized opposition in Benghazi when she arrives there this week, our commitment to regime change in Libya should be scaled back. It’s not our problem. Obama is in the process of making it our problem. We should stand ready to prevent massacres and offer asylum, but should not commit our military to do what the rebels cannot do themselves. If we want to pursue other angles, like seeking out potential alternatives to Gaddafi from within his circle, that seems to me to be unwise but still preferable to getting into a civil war on the side that our intelligence director says is likely to lose. Once we commit a tiny bit, we’ll wind up doing the fighting because we can’t afford to lose.

But what will we have won? Good will? Don’t be silly.

Once it became clear that we were committed to regime change, I started arguing against arming a rebel force and promoting a civil war: “It isn’t humanitarian to turn a country into Somalia just so you can pretend that you don’t have any boots on the ground.”

And, of course, turning Libya into Somalia is exactly what we wound up doing. And I warned of that even at the moment of maximum American triumphalism.

I know the temptation is strong to talk smack about the Republicans’ lack of enthusiasm for our excellent adventure in Libya. I mean, it looks like Gaddafi is the hunted rat now, doesn’t it? And it really wasn’t so hard to accomplish if you think about it. Most of the world is fairly pleased or no worse than neutral about our role in this. Innocent people’s lives were saved. We’re on the cusp on getting some justifiable revenge for the Americans who were killed by Gaddafi in the 1980’s. Maybe Libya will get a decent government and actual representative democracy. And the president pulled it off without losing any airmen, or even any equipment as far as I know. So, why not ask some skeptics to eat crow?

I’ll tell you why. Right now in the streets of Tripoli, armed gunmen are running everywhere firing off their weapons indiscriminately, without the slightest hint of discipline. Gaddafi’s compound is being looted down to the copper. And when the Sun comes up tomorrow, it’s unclear who can or will restore order. Yesterday and today, the rebels were united by their desire to oust an odious regime. Tomorrow, powerful tribal and military leaders will be divided over who gets the spoils. Those loyal to Gaddafi may be small, but a small group can create outsized trouble.

I will say this. I was concerned that the war would remain a stalemate for longer than five months and that the country would be torn apart worse than turned out to in fact be the case. So, things have gone better than I feared up to this moment. Libya has a decent starting place, and there’s solid reason for hope. But the really hard part starts tomorrow.

So, looking back four years later, how many lives did we save by intervening in Libya? Is Libya a better place? Is their oil supply more secure? What can we say is actually better than it would have been if we had just minded our own business?

Go ahead and make your argument, but it wasn’t hard to predict that causing a regime change in a country where we had no allies and almost no intelligence would be reckless.

1 comment for “I Tried to Talk Us Out of Libya

  1. Profile photo of BooMan
    February 20, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    Economists and Libyan and U.S. officials say Libya is burning through its international reserves at an alarming rate as the country scrambles to pay a huge bill for wages and subsidies without the benefit of normally ample oil revenues, virtually the country’s only source of income.

    Last year, Libya depleted $27 billion of its reserves, which now stand around $81 billion, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Unless fighting lets up this year, allowing wider oil exports to resume, the country could use the same amount this year.

    “Libya is running out of money,” a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss another country’s finances. “What happens when Libya is bankrupt? … When they have no hard currency, they can’t buy food, so you have a massive humanitarian crisis.”

    The situation is startling for an OPEC member country perfectly situated to export its light sweet oil to nearby Europe. The country’s economic lifeblood, oil accounts for almost 100 percent of Libyan exports. Prior to 2011, oil output stood around 1.6 million barrels per day.

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