Obama's War of Choice

Did the president mislead the American people about Libya?

Remember when a crusading president, acting on dubious intelligence, insufficient information, and exaggerated fears, took the nation into a Middle Eastern war of choice? That was George W. Bush in 2003, invading Iraq. But it's also Barack Obama in 2011, attacking Libya.

For weeks, President Obama had been wary of military action. What obviously changed his mind was the fear that Moammar Gadhafi was bent on mass slaughter—which stemmed from Gadhafi's March 17 speech vowing "no mercy" for his enemies.

In his March 26 radio address, Obama said the United States acted because Gadhafi threatened "a bloodbath." Two days later, he asserted, "We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi—a city nearly the size of Charlotte—could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."

Really? Obama implied that, absent our intervention, Gadhafi might have killed nearly 700,000 people, putting it in a class with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. White House adviser Dennis Ross was only slightly less alarmist when he reportedly cited "the real or imminent possibility that up to a 100,000 people could be massacred."

But these are outlandish scenarios that go beyond any reasonable interpretation of Gadhafi's words. He said, "We will have no mercy on them"—but by "them," he plainly was referring to armed rebels ("traitors") who stand and fight, not all the city's inhabitants.

"We have left the way open to them," he said. "Escape. Let those who escape go forever." He pledged that "whoever hands over his weapons, stays at home without any weapons, whatever he did previously, he will be pardoned, protected."

Alan Kuperman, an associate professor at the University of Texas' Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, is among those unconvinced by Obama's case. "Gadhafi," he told me, "did not massacre civilians in any of the other big cities he captured—Zawiyah, Misratah, Ajdabiya—which together have a population equal to Benghazi. Yes, civilians were killed in a typical, ham-handed Third World counter-insurgency. But civilians were not targeted for massacre as in Rwanda, Darfur, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia or even Kosovo after NATO intervention."

The rebels, however, knew that inflating their peril was their best hope for getting outside help. So, Kuperman says, they concocted the specter of genocide—and Obama believed it, or at least used it to justify intervention.

Another skeptic is Paul Miller, an assistant professor at National Defense University who served on the National Security Council under Bush and Obama. "The Rwandan genocide was targeted against an entire, clearly defined ethnic group," he wrote on the Foreign Policy website. "The Libyan civil war is between a tyrant and his cronies on one side, and a collection of tribes, movements, and ideologists (including Islamists) on the other. ... The first is murder, the second is war."

When I contacted Miller, he discounted the talk of vast slaughter. "Benghazi is the second-largest city in the country, and he needs the city and its people to continue functioning and producing goods for his impoverished country," he said.

Maybe these analysts are mistaken, but the administration has offered little in the way of rebuttal. Where Bush sent Colin Powell to the United Nations to make the case against Saddam Hussein, Obama has treated the evidence about Gadhafi as too obvious to dispute.

I e-mailed the White House press office several times asking for concrete evidence of the danger, based on any information the administration may have. But a spokesman declined comment.

That's a surprising omission, given that a looming holocaust was the centerpiece of the president's case for war. Absent specific, reliable evidence, we have to wonder if the president succumbed to unwarranted panic over fictitious dangers.

Bush had a host of reasons (or pretexts) for invading Iraq. But Obama has only one good excuse for the attack on Libya—averting mass murder. That gives the administration a special obligation to document the basis for its fears.

Maybe it can. Plenty of experts think Obama's worries were justified. But so far, the White House message has been: Trust us.

Sorry, but we've tried that before. In 2002, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice waved off doubts about Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions, saying, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." Right now, the Benghazi bloodbath looks like Obama's mushroom cloud.

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  • Suki||

    Good morning reason!

  • Jerry||

    Do you really think Qadaffi is stupid enough to attack a city like Benghazi when the whole world is watching? To attack that city -would- have given pretext to put Western troops on the ground. Now all we got is a no-fly-zone. Btw, why hasn't the US released satellite images of Qadaffi's troop positions? Do they simply not have them, or do they show that the troops weren't exactly encircling Benghazi at the time.

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  • rather||

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  • ||

    Somehow, I doubt it...

  • ||

    "But Obama has only one good excuse for the attack on Libya—averting mass murder."

    That was our reason for going to war with Serbia in 1999 only to later find out there were no mass killings in Kosovo besides the ones that the Kosovars did after we bombed the Serbs.

  • Doc S||

    Well written, I'm guessing the truth lies somewhere in between the two. I'm sure Ghadafi wasn't really going to play nice and just let the "rebels" reenter society unpunished. And the means of entering this conflict between GW and BO also clearly weren't the same.
    It's probably about time to stop playing team america world police. 80% of countries are going to hate us regardless of our international involvement strictly due to us being us and having our quality of life.

  • stephen||

    look at afghanistan. we've been attempting to rebuild that society for a decade. All it takes is for one guy to burn their holy book and they hate us again. when will we learn that there is simply nothing we can do to make these countries like us? forget wasting trillions on restructuring and pull out with a stark warning. if there's another attack on the US it will be met with air assaults and devastating bombings on military targets of supporting countries. Do it from the sky and sea as many times as it takes for them to get the message. putting boots on the ground gives them a chance.

  • stephen||

    massive retaliation minus the nuclear aspect. it's clearly all these countries recognize, and failure to respond thusly has gotten us into a fine mess.

  • BradK||

    The Afghans, like the rest of the miserable Muslim world, have never stopped hating us and likely never will. They only make nice with the West when there is something to be gained by the person or group engaged (think Hamid Karzai), not out of any enlightened Global Village thinking. Our only ongoing "friendships" are with dictators and thugs (the Saudi royals, Saddam before he invaded Kuwait) who serve our national or industrial interests.

    The whole Koran burning/uprising last week was just an excuse to vent anti-Western rage -- at the Nepalese.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    These countries are going to need a (classic) liberal ideology implanted (is that the word I want?) if they're ever going to get along with us. Our nation building antics haven't done that.

    Lets drop copies of Locke, Smith, Rand, and Reason (Arabic (or whatever) editions, of course) and let them sort out their own problems.

  • Realist||

    "Did the president mislead the American people about Libya?"
    And everything else too....he's a sack of shit with with big ears.

  • ||

    So, where can I get my "Obama lied and people died" bumper sticker? I'm sure the left will get right on that.

  • BradK||

    The left is busy at the moment trying to save NPR from the Tea Party.

  • nanda||

    If the media can lie enough to the public, it won’t be his “mushroom cloud.”

    obama said he wants to protect civilians. He did not explain why these civilians over those in the Ivory Coast or the Congo, where far worse things are going on than in Libya, things that hard to read about in terms of women, girls, and even infants being raped, sometimes to death.

    Obama said he wants democracy in Libya. He means it. He wants them to have what they want, which at this point, seems like a government that will impose strict religious rule and that will be even more hostile to the west and to Israel than before. That an american president should want that is a tragedy. Obama does not appear to feel loyalty to the US.

  • nanda||

    it appears that these rebels are not the ones likely to give rise to what in the west is regarded as democracy. and it increasingly appears that they cannot agree amongst themselves. so what happens if they win? Mass killings to wipe out not only Ghadaffi's side but the opposition among the rebels themselves, followed by oppression. AT this point that is the likeliest scenario.

  • bob||

    Phew. Good thing Obama is a Democrat. The biggest risk he faces is telling Democrats they are going over the line attacking Palin.

  • ||

    The excuse that thousands of innocents are about to die was simply there to convince a large enough segment of the population. Like all wars, there enough people who believe it, thats all that matters, whether it is true or not is irrelevant.

  • ||

    In my sleepy little burg one occasionally sees a bumper sticker which reads
    The Bible Says It
    I Beleieve It
    That Settles It

    I think Obama would have us substitute his name.

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  • ||

    He only had two years left to start his own war. Every President has to have one for the resume. Libya was as good as anyplace else.

    Had Obama "Reagan'd" this thing, it would have been done and over with two Tomahawks. One for Qaddafi and one for his kid. Then the tribes could have gone back to squabbling with each other while the rest of us went on to bitch about something else the current turd in chief has screwed up.

  • ||

    Well, aren't you the cynical one?

  • Inkfarmer||

    The similarities between Obama and Bush are becoming downright uncanny.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Funny how Team Blue thinks it's okay all of a sudden to get involved in mid-East politics... with bombs... when it wasn't okay when Team Red did it.

    Hint: Neither Libya nor Iraq, were necessary wars.

    Cue Tony in 3... 2...

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