Surprise War for Regime Change in Libya is the Wrong Path

In the first part of a new FPIF Strategic Dialogue on the Libyan War, Robert Naiman argues that the Obama administration is selling the U.S. public a pig in a poke with its military intervention in Libya. See Ian Williams’s pro-intervention argument here. Also see the two contributors respond to each other’s arguments here.

Robert NaimanThe Obama administration set a bad precedent by launching a surprise war for regime change in Libya without congressional authorization or informed public debate, in violation of the letter and spirit of the War Powers Resolution enacted by Congress in 1973.

The War Powers Resolution – which is a law – explicitly affirms that:

The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to
(1) a declaration of war,
(2) specific statutory authorization, or
(3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

With Libya, there was no declaration of war, no specific statutory authorization, and no attack on the U.S. or its armed forces.

Nor did the administration comply with the intent of the War Powers Resolution. The goal of the War Powers Resolution was to stop the Executive Branch from going around Congress through the creation of facts on the ground – exactly what happened in this case.

There was no congressional or public debate of what the administration intended to do. There was debate over a “no fly zone,” but the military campaign the administration has conducted has been something else. As Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) recently said, “It seems to me, and I think everybody else, that we are clearly involved in regime change.”

Trafficking in Euphemisms

The public posture of the administration, a few days prior to the UN Security Council resolution, was to oppose a “no-fly zone.” It argued that such a strategy would not effectively protect civilians and would require extensive bombing. The last thing the United States needed to do right was to engage in a third war in a Muslim country. But the military campaign we have been engaged in goes well beyond a no-fly zone and involves much more bombing.

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported, that “some of the United States’ partners have acknowledged that the initial descriptions of the intervention in Libya no longer apply. ‘What is happening in Libya is not a no-fly zone,’ a senior European diplomat told reporters, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity. ‘The no-fly zone was a diplomatic thing, to get the Arabs on board. What we have in Libya is more than that.’”

It wasn’t just “the Arabs” who got a euphemistic story. The U.S. public also got a euphemistic story, and continues to get a euphemistic story about what is taking place.

Mission Creep

When President Obama addressed the nation Monday, he said that “our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives.” But as The New York Times reported, “Even as President Obama on Monday described a narrower role for the United States in a NATO-led operation,” the U.S. military has been carrying out an “expansive and increasingly potent air campaign,” amounting to “an all-out assault on Libya’s military.”

According to the Times report, the real military mission is different: “The strategy for White House officials nervous that the Libya operation could drag on for weeks or months, even under a NATO banner, is to hit Libyan forces hard enough to force them to oust Colonel Qaddafi, a result that Mr. Obama has openly encouraged.”

The UN Security Council never approved a military mission to overthrow the Libyan government. Neither did Congress or the American people. The U.S. public has very different feelings about “using military force to protect civilians” and “using military force to remove Qaddafi.” In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, voters said by a 65 to 27 percent margin that “the U.S. should use military force to protect civilians,” while splitting 46 to 45 percent on whether protecting Libyan civilians from Qaddafi is a goal worth having U.S. troops “fight and possibly die.”

But they said by a margin of 48 to 41percent the United States should not use military force to remove Gaddafi from power. By a margin of 61 to 30 percent respondents believed that removing Gaddafi is not worth having American troops “fight and possibly die.”

Thus, depending on the involvement and risk to U.S. soldiers, the public would strongly support or be evenly divided on what the administration has told them it is doing; but it opposes or strongly opposes what the administration is actually doing.

Why Congress?

Lack of congressional authorization is not a mere matter of procedure. Congress is the main vehicle through which the public has influence on government policy between elections. To weaken congressional war powers is to weaken the ability of the public to have a say.

Minimum conditions for a war to be considered “just” include that alternatives to military force have been exhausted and that the minimum force necessary is used to achieve the stated objective. This has not been true in the Libya war.

The United States and allies summarily dismissed diplomatic initiatives by the African Union and the government of Venezuela for negotiations between the Libyan government and armed rebels.

The early move to refer Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court limited space for a negotiated resolution, by limiting the possibility that Gaddafi could go into exile. And on Wednesday, The Independent reported, “divisions over a plan – put forward by the Italian Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, to provide a safe-haven for Gaddafi if he were to go into exile. This is supported by Turkey but is less enthusiastically backed by Britain and the US who would prefer him to face an investigation by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.”

If the goal were to “protect civilians,” or even to “remove Gaddafi from power,” the minimum force necessary was not being used at the time of The Independent’s report, if insistence that Qaddafi face the ICC was an obstacle to a political resolution of the conflict.

Trade-offs

The choice to go to war and continue it involve trade-offs, not only financial costs and casualties but also political costs. Much has been made of “double standards” – why Libya, not elsewhere? This is dismissed by noting we cannot intervene militarily everywhere.

But the military campaign directed at regime change involves political costs that undermine the goal of protecting civilians elsewhere.

According to recent reports from diplomatic sources at the UN, the United States gave a green light for Saudi Arabia to invade Bahrain and crush the pro-democracy movement in exchange for a “yes” vote by the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya. Former British diplomat Craig Murray made the same claim earlier, citing a senior Western diplomat at the UN. Last week, The Telegraph reported that “Saudi officials say they gave their backing to Western air strikes on Libya in exchange for the United States muting its criticism of the authorities in Bahrain, a close ally of the desert kingdom.

Indeed, the United States has been largely silent on the crackdown in Bahrain. It would strain credulity to claim that this silence is unrelated to support of the Gulf Arab states – the driving force behind the Arab League resolution – for Western military intervention in Libya.

The foregoing concerns are related. There is little direct public pressure in the United States to pursue negotiations to resolve international conflicts. But there is strong public resistance to engaging in new military conflicts and keeping U.S. soldiers there, and the two are directly related: the interest of the United States in pursuing negotiations is proportional to the resistance of the public to military alternatives.

That’s why it’s in the interest of those who want the United States to pursue negotiations to keep the ball in the congressional court. Regardless of what happened in the past, what needs to happen now is a serious effort at a negotiated resolution of the conflict, and that is most likely to happen if there is firm congressional resistance to any further military escalation, such as the introduction of U.S. ground troops or an indefinite extension of U.S. air strikes.

Robert Naiman is the policy director at Just Foreign Policy and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.