Barack Obama

President Obama Wishes The Libya Intervention Had Been More Full-Throttled

Lesson learned? Hardly.


United Nations

President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly yesterday during the annual gathering of world leaders at the UN's headquarters in New York City. He praised his efforts at using sanctions and diplomacy to try to bring Iran into compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), acknowledged yet again the failures of the Iraq war, and rebuked Russia and China for their aggressive claims of sovereignty, over regions of Ukraine and the South China Sea respectively. 

Obama said that in Iraq the U.S. had "learned the hard lesson that even hundreds of thousands of brave, effective troops, trillions of dollars from our Treasury, cannot by itself impose stability on a foreign land." Unfortunately Obama didn't draw any other lessons, insisting that if the U.S. had worked with other countries "under the mantle of international norms and principles and law that offer legitimacy to our efforts" it could have succeeded. 

That line of thinking led to a breath-taking comment a little later on about the 2011 U.S.-backed intervention in Libya (remember that?). "Even as we helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant," said Obama, "our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind." Remarkably, Obama mentioned the "lesson" of Iraq before expressing this opinion, as if the imprimatur of the United Nations or the "international system" or the global establishment media would make the installation of a puppet regime in Libya something other than the installation of a puppet regime in Libya. Perhaps a puppet regime in Libya would be preferable to the democratic chaos in Libya today, but when interventionists talk about the need to "fill a vacuum" they are talking about puppet regimes even if its coded in the language of international engagement. 

As the Iraq War recedes further into memory it's harder and harder to argue that Saddam Hussein, at the very least, didn't "fill a vacuum" in Iraq now being occupied by radical extremists despite the U.S. coalition's efforts to nation build. President Obama's paradigm busting solution to the difficulty (impossibility?) of the task of Western nation-building in countries without a Western history is to "build capacity for states that are in distress before they collapse." Or nation-building before nation-building is necessary. 

You can't overstate how ridiculous this notion is. The United States has one of the healthiest, arguably, democratic societies and governments in the world, yet the president regularly demonizes the opposition party (and it's certainly not just this president). Donald Trump is the Republican frontrunner largely on the promise of getting things done for the country unilaterally. Democratic governance is a messy, ugly thing that doesn't work well but, to paraphrase Churchill, works better than anything else anyone's tried.

Now insert into that chaotic process international actors, who will be demonized by some political factions to score points against other political factions. Venezuela has suffered under decades of chavismo with the fledgling opposition trying to reinvigorate Venezuela with democratic, free market norms. Yet paltry funding from U.S. sources for this opposition is used non-stop by the Venezuelan ruling class to demonize and try to delegitimize the opposition. Obama's proposal to "build capacity" in collapsing states before they collapse would play out the same way, with the well-intentioned goals being twisted by the destabilizing forces to deliver a death blow to the teetering government. 

The 2011 intervention in Libya caused a deterioration of the security situation in the North African country. Al Qaeda sprung up where there was no Al Qaeda before. Even the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is now operating in Libya. And the outflow of weapons after the intervention helped fuel conflicts from Nigeria to Afghanistan. The lesson of Libya shouldn't have been that deeper interventions are necessary, just as the lesson of Iraq shouldn't have been that more "legitimate" (well-liked?) interventions are necessary.

The idea that someone like Barack Obama can succeed where someone like George W. Bush can not is a toxic byproduct of "principals over principles" politics being applied to foreign policy. It ought to be roundly rejected as idiotic thinking that will only lead to more interventions and more bloodshed and more failures and more extremist groups exerting more control over the world, all with no lessons learned and the world in constant search of a better man for the next intervention.