Almost daily over the past four months we were told that Col. Moammar Gadhafi was about ready to throw in the towel and give up.
Libya, after all, is not a distant Afghanistan or Iraq with a population of about 30 million. Yet this tiny police state of fewer than 7 million people, conveniently located on the Mediterranean Sea opposite nearby Europe, continues to thwart the three great powers of the NATO alliance and thousands of “Arab Spring” rebels.
In March, President Obama ordered the use of American bombers and cruise missiles to join with the French and British to finish off the tottering Gadhafi regime. Mr. Obama apparently was stung by liberal criticism that the United States had done little to help rebels in their weeks-long effort to remove Col. Gadhafi – after only belatedly supporting the successful revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt.
Months ago, intervention to the Obama administration seemed a short, painless way of ridding the world of a decades-long international menace while gaining praise for helping “democratic” reformers. Oil, of course, is always a subtext in any Middle Eastern war.
But almost immediately, contradictions arose. Sometimes we ordered Col. Gadhafi to leave; at other times we insisted we were only helping the rebels. Bombs seemed to be aimed at the Gadhafi family even as we denied such targeted killing – and were reminded that U.S. law forbids the assassination of foreign leaders.
The rebels were described variously as would-be democratic reformers, inept amateurs, hard-core Islamists or mixtures of all three. No one seems to have answers months later, though many insurgents share a deep-seated racial and religious hatred of Col. Gadhafi’s African mercenaries. Who knows whether post-Gadhafi Libya will become an Islamic republic, a Somalia-like mess, another Arab dictatorship or a Turkish-style democracy?
The more NATO forces destroyed Col. Gadhafi’s tanks, artillery, planes and boats, the more the unhinged dictator seemed to cling to power. Western leaders had forgotten that Col. Gadhafi lost a war with Egypt in 1977, lost a war with Chad in 1987 and came out on the losing end of Ronald Reagan’s bombing campaign in 1986 – and yet clung to power and remains the planet’s longest-ruling dictator. Terror, oil, cash reserves and a loyal mercenary army are a potent combination.
The Obama administration asked for legal authorization from the Arab League – the majority of whose member states are not democratic – and the United Nations, but to this day strangely has not requested authorization from Congress. As Mr. Obama sought legitimacy within international authorizations, he failed to note that no U.N. or Arab League resolution actually had allowed him to conduct a full-scale air war against Col. Gadhafi’s ruling clique. The Chinese and Russians are both happy to keep pointing that out.
Conservatives and liberals both were flabbergasted by the sudden pre-emptive war. Conservatives who supported the messy efforts in Afghan- istan and Iraq were reluctant to champion a third one in Libya without congressional authority and with no clearly stated mission or methodology. When we entered an on-again, off-again cycle of operations, Republicans charged that a weakened, fiscally insolvent America was sort of “leading from behind.”
Liberals were appalled that the president, who, as a senator, had always praised the War Powers Act, was ordering his legal team to find ingenious ways of bypassing it. If this was to be a multilateral, un-George W. Bush war, why then did it split NATO apart? Roughly half the members declined to participate. Both Germany and Italy soon openly opposed the effort. And now the instigator, France, seems to want to bail.
The left also had decried Western attacks on oil-exporting Muslim countries, but now liberal-in-chief Barack Obama was doing just that. Indeed, the anti-war president who promised to end the Bush Middle Eastern wars had suddenly expanded them into a third theater. The more the war dragged on, the more the Arab world was torn between hating Col. Gadhafi and hating Mr. Obama’s bombs.
The odious colonel has been an international pariah for most of his tenure, funding terrorists, killing Americans and murdering dissidents. But even as the bombs were being dropped, he was a monster in the midst of rehab. By late 2010, his jet-setting family was being courted by Western intellectuals, re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States, offering oil concessions to the West and being praised as a partner in the war against radical Islamic terrorism.
Then, with a snap of the fingers, in early 2011 Col. Gadhafi suddenly was reinvented as a Saddam Hussein-like ogre and was dodging Western cruise missiles and bombs targeted at his person.
The general consensus – from both left and right – is that we should finish the misadventure as quickly as possible. Apparently, the only thing worse than starting a stupid, unnecessary war against a madman is losing it.
Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.