His worst mistake in office was "failing to plan for the day after" in Libya, President Obama said during an interview in April. The real error, as recent history has amply demonstrated, was deciding to intervene in the first place, and less than a month later, Obama is preparing to double down on that reckless intervention.
U.S. forces have secretly operated in Libya for months, seeking to push back against ISIS expansion made possible by the power vacuum our toppling of former dictator Moammar Qaddafi produced. Now, the Pentagon has openly established two small bases in the North African country. It's a tiny presence so far, but it lays the groundwork for round two of Obama's signature foreign policy failure.
Of course, the problem here is much bigger than Obama himself. To be sure, he and his fellow architect of intervention, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, deserve plenty of blame for repeating in Libya exactly the sort of unnecessary and apparently long-term intervention they condemn their White House predecessors for launching in Iraq.
But considered more broadly, the Libyan invasion is thoroughly typical of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, which countenances no caution or restraint. At every glimmer of opportunity for military action—no matter how long the commitment, how enormous the price tag, or how extraneous the cause to American national interests—Washington leaps.
This imprudence was the subject of a recent hearing with James Baker at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Baker, who served as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush posited a theory of "selective engagement," a realist approach of recognizing that the United States neither can nor should attempt to apply a military solution to every problem on the planet.
"Look at each one of these discrete foreign policy problems through the prism of our national interest and our principles and values," he said in a conversation with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), "and say to yourself, 'Ok, if we take this action, where's it gonna lead?'"
And that is precisely what wasn't asked in advance of the multitude of entanglements in which America finds herself today. Thanks to this lack of foresight, we are spending trillions to deploy U.S. troops to at least half a dozen countries (Libya included) with no exit strategy in sight. These wars are an expense our grandchildren will still be paying; of dubious connection to our national interest; and compromising of American values.
As Paul argued, they are also unwinnable given our government's ill-considered expectations. Washington thinks it can "just blow up Qaddafi and out of that Thomas Jefferson will get elected," he said. This is a "naïve notion," Paul added, and "it needs to go back to—not that 'we need to be better prepared'—but that maybe, sometimes, with 'selective engagement,' this is a time that we shouldn't select to militarily engage."
With renewed intervention in Libya on the horizon, this is a lesson our government needs to learn in record time. "The president has now admitted that it was a mistake to topple Gaddafi in Libya, but he sort of says, 'Well, it wasn't a silly mistake to do it; it was just a mistake not to be prepared to create a country out of nothing and put, I guess, massive amounts of resources to create a nation in Libya,'" Paul said. "So I think there are a couple possibilities: One is maybe you shouldn't do it to begin with. And the other is we have massive resources and we create nations."
After 15 years of failed nation-building Iraq and five years of chaos in Libya, with trillions down the drain, it is obvious that the second possibility is not on the table outside of Washington's fantasy world of endless money, insta-democracy, and, I presume, rainbows and unicorns.
That leaves just the first choice: That maybe we shouldn't to this to begin with—or, at this stage, that maybe we should stop trying to do it in the face of overwhelming evidence it can't be successfully done.