Counting the Costs of Obama's Libya and Syria Blunders

Heckuva job, Barry.


There's an unhealthy dose of '80s nostalgia in the media reaction to the emerging Vladimir Putin-brokered settlement of the Syrian chemical weapons attack crisis.

The punditocracy seems transfixed on Cold-War era concerns like, "Have the Russians made our president look weak?" But there's a more important takeaway from last week's events.

The "Obama Doctrine" — or at least that part of the president's muddled foreign policy philosophy that favors humanitarian "wars of choice" — is finished. "Tomahawk humanitarianism" has had its day. The Libyan precedent won't be repeated — and it's a good thing, too.

New York Times columnist and armed international niceness advocate Nick Kristof called the 2011 air war in Libya one of "President Obama's finest moments in foreign policy." It was anything but.

Put aside the fact that the war was illegal by Obama's own terms, expressed on the campaign trail in 2007, since it "unilaterally authorize[d] a military attack in a situation that [did] not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

Our allegedly limited "kinetic military action" in Libya — which lasted some seven months — was also a disaster in humanitarian terms.

As political scientist Alan J. Kuperman recently explained, NATO intervention "increased the duration of Libya's civil war by about six times and its death toll by at least seven times, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors."

In a new article in the journal International Security, Kuperman tallies up the meager benefits and considerable costs: "Human rights conditions in post-intervention Libya," which according to Human Rights Watch include abuses "'so widespread and systematic that they may amount to crimes against humanity,' are considerably worse than in the decade preceding the war."

The Washington Post's recent look at Libya two years after the revolution describes a hellscape "governed" by hundreds of armed militias, where "even minor disputes escalate into frequent gun violence on the streets."

But with oil production nearly shut down — 250,000 barrels a day, down from 1.6 million just before the war — at least you can't accuse Obama of spilling "blood for oil."

Meanwhile, thousands of portable surface-to-air missiles, useful for shooting down civilian aircraft, have been "privatized," with some possibly in the hands of terrorists.

Outside Libya's borders, Kuperman notes, "the most obvious negative impact has been in Mali," where Tuareg soldiers with Moammar Gadhafi's former security forces fled with their weapons and sparked an insurgency in the country's north.

"Making matters worse, the rebellion in the north was quickly hijacked by local Islamist forces and elements of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians and making northern Mali by late 2012 "the largest territory controlled by Islamic extremists in the world."

Heckuva job, Barry.

Perversely, the president's Libyan adventure may have had the unintended consequence of exacerbating violence in Syria. That's because of what Kuperman calls "the moral hazard of humanitarian intervention," in which hopes for outside aid encourage risk-seeking behavior by those expecting rescue.

"When NATO started bombing Libyan forces in March 2011," Kuperman writes, "Syria's uprising was mainly nonviolent and its government's response — although criminally disproportionate — was relatively circumscribed.
But after Gadhafi's fall, "in the summer of 2011, Syria's uprising turned violent," with "a fifteenfold increase in the killing rate" by 2013.

If Libya is "a 'model intervention,'" Kuperman sums up, "then it is a model of failure."

It's unlikely that Obama has learned the right lessons from that debacle. But the good news is it's a failure that seems unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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  1. Blunders? Some guy named Andrew said Obama’s winning on Syria. Winning.

    1. I’m not surprised that this administration is totally incompetent in foreign policy as well as most other things, but I am saddened that the country will once again reap the rewards of that incompetence, long after this particular set of venal, power-mad idiots has left government.

      1. To be replaced by a new, fresh crop of venal, power-mad idiots.

  2. Fun fact, after AQIM hyjacked the Taureg uprising, the Tauregs switched sides and joined the Government forces against their erstwile “allies” in the uprising.

    1. So, are we winning in Mali/Libya/Yemen/Somalia/Eastasia?

  3. “The punditocracy seems transfixed on Cold-War era concerns like, “Have the Russians made our president look weak?””

    The punditocracy ought to focus on Obama sticking a ‘kick me’ sign on his ass.
    Putin did no more than Obama asked for, so no, HE didn’t make Obama look the fool; Obama did.

  4. The community organizer seems to have failed at organizing communities in foreign lands.

  5. It is not his fault!

    From Camelot to Blame alot in just forty short years.

  6. Clouseau will get his man. Just you wait and see.

  7. You guys are losers. Obama totally saw Mali coming. Dude is far thinking both the aliens and dead Babylonians can feel it.

  8. As bad as Libya is, I don’t see it as Obama’s biggest failure in foreign policy. I had hoped that Obama might have been in a position to put the relations between Iran and the USA on a less antagonistic footing. I probably had hopes that he might take steps to sort out the Israeli Palestinian squabbles as well, but in the situation with Iran is arguably more dangerous and more easily addressed.

    We can blame Obama for doing nothing with Iran, but he’s only a politician and I don’t see much support among the populace for easing the situation with Iran. America is not yet ready to put the matter behind them and any politician with the courage and desire to do so would be stymied by other US power centres.

  9. As much as Libertarians tend to believe in non-intervention, Peace through Strength is an important principal. All the military hardware and resources in the world are useless if no one thinks you will use them. Unfortunately, BHO has proven he has no will to use them, which makes the need to use them so much more likely.

    1. When did he prove it? When he bombed libya?

      1. Oh wait, you said he has proven he has no will to use them -_-

  10. “But the good news is it’s a failure that seems unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.”

    Don’t be too sure. The Syria strikes are on hold for at least a couple weeks, but they aren’t permanently off the table by any means. It’s quite likely that Kerry & Co. will determine that Assad hasn’t turned over all his chem weapons or precursors thereto, paving way for the bombing to commence – with the added spin of “we tried diplomacy and it didn’t work”. This scenario becomes highly likely if there’s another chemical attack in Syria, even if there are indications that it was launched by the rebels.

    The chances of Assad proving that he’s turned over all his chem weapons are about the same as the chances Saddam Hussein had of proving he had no WMD. Kerry’s public utterances make me believe that the administration won’t be satisfied as long as there are two carbon atoms in Syria that share the same molecule.

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