Why Are We Going to War with Libya?–Updated

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Updated: 4:10 pm

With air strikes apparently imminent against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi, America faces a simple question: why is the U.S. going to war in Libya? There may be good reasons, even compelling ones. But so far the answers from the Obama administration are shockingly opaque, contradictory and incomplete.

Obama explained his decision in an East Room statement this afternoon. He said Gaddafi was suppressing his people and that “left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gaddhafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.”

Hillary Clinton said this morning that regime change—Gaddafi’s departure from power—was also a key U.S. demand, but Obama did not include regime change in his list of “non-negotiable” terms. “All attacks against civilians must stop,” Obama said, “Gadhafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi; pull them back from Adjadbiya, Misrata and Zawiya; and establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas. Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya.” Non-compliance by Gaddafi, Obama said, would result in military action. He said the U.S. would provide “unique capabilities” as “part of an international coalition.”

Obama is unpersuasive and the messages from the administration are strikingly unclear. Why is the Secretary of State calling for Gaddafi’s ouster but not the President, who just days ago was himself calling on Gaddafi to leave the country? More important, what interests of the American people are being served here? Why does the U.S. want the fighting to stop, Gaddafi’s forces to retreat and Gaddafi to leave the country?

The most common justification for war is the allegation that Gaddafi has been killing innocent civilians. Intervention to stop war crimes like the widespread killing of civilians has precedent in Bosnia and Kosovo. The unrest in Libya did begin, as Obama and Clinton pointed out, with peaceful protests, which Gaddafi attempted violently to suppress. The protesters then armed themselves and were joined by defecting units of the military. Since then, most of the reports coming out of Libya appear to indicate that the violence is between armed rebels and forces loyal to Gaddafi. Obama appeared to concede this by emphasizing the possibility of a future humanitarian crisis rather than a current one.

Secretary Clinton herself today suggested that the evidence of violence against civilians, as opposed to armed rebels and defecting troops, is circumstantial. “There are many stories, as you know, of massacres, abductions,” Clinton said. She did not produce evidence of atrocities against civilians and said that such allegations would need to be validated later on the ground. Time has asked the administration for evidence of war crimes for several weeks and they have not provided it. It is worth noting that other regimes around the world, including some allies, are even now unambiguously killing innocent civilians.

The demands of President Obama, Secretary Clinton and other U.S. officials that Gaddafi leave the country, indicate another justification for U.S. involvement in the war: regime change. But would a change of regimes in Libya be in our interest? Gaddafi is a thug. In the 1980s he launched repeated terrorist attacks against Americans, and over the last two decades he has fueled horrific and destabilizing violence in West Africa. But after the Iraq war, he gave up his secret nuclear and chemical weapons programs and began cooperating with the U.S. in counterterrorism efforts.

So U.S. interests are mixed on the simple question of Gaddafi’s removal. The real question is “what’s the alternative?” It’s safe to say that no one in the administration can predict what will emerge in a post-Gaddafi Libya. There has never been a powerful central state in Libya, and the country is split along tribal lines. There is little of the civil society or established middle class that exist in Egypt, let alone that of more developed countries that have peacefully made the transition to democracy from authoritarianism. And the part of the country that has fueled the uprising against Gaddafi is also the section of the country that has harbored much of Libya’s Islamic radicalism, including many militants who fought in Iraq against the U.S.

That said, it seems possible that the rebel leadership could align its interests with ours if it came to power. Secretary Clinton did not provide much detail about her meetings earlier this week with rebel leaders. However, past diplomatic cables sent by U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz and leaked by WikiLeaks, reveal that the leader of the rebel council, former Libyan Justice Minister Mustafa Abduljalil, holds potential. On Jan. 25 last year, Cretz met with Abduljalil to discuss legal reforms. Abduljalil had facilitated the visits of U.S. advisers and judges to the country and had requested U.S. help with private sector development. Abduljalil attempted (and failed) to resign in Feb. 2010 after Gaddafi prevented the release of 300 Libyans that Gaddafi said were terrorists. Abduljalil raised concerns with the ambassador about US support for Israel. The picture of the opposition is unclear and whether current figures in leadership would remain in power is also uncertain.

Americans have not been provided with sufficient evidence of mass atrocities committed by the Gaddafi regime or indications that a Gaddafi victory would destabilize the region to justify a military intervention on humanitarian grounds alone. Nor has the administration made a case that the alternative to Gaddafi justifies the risk of removing him. Members of both political parties are prone to support humanitarian intervention to stop war crimes and given Gaddafi’s past, it seems a strong case could be made that an alternative to him would be in the U.S. interest. It is somewhat shocking that the U.S. is preparing to take military action against Libya and neither of those arguments have been convincingly made.