Question: What’s the difference between Bush’s decision to attack Iraq and Obama’s to attack Libya?
Answer: Obama is “awesome”!
The President’s “awesomeness” notwithstanding, there’s been more than a little effort by pundits and partisans of both political persuasions to compare and contrast the two military actions. Much of the punditocracy has criticized Obama’s “half-way” approach in Libya, in which he helped establish a NATO-led “no fly” zone, but ruled out introducing troops on the ground, and almost immediately begin ceding U.S. control over the air campaign to NATO allies. Interestingly, Obama’s decision has split both conservatives and liberals. Neoconservatives have excoriated the President for not going all in on behalf of the rebels, while more traditional conservatives are wondering why the U.S. is involved at all, given the lack of strategic interests in Libya. But not all the criticism comes from the Right; many on the Left oppose any U.S. intervention, while others favor a more aggressive military response. Even some of the President’s staunchest supporters, like Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, are openly questioning Obama’s war aims:
“Clearly, it seems to me, there will be occasions when humanitarian military intervention is our duty. This may be one of them. But the goal must be to prevent the bloodbath, not just reschedule it. Even after his forces have been pummeled by U.S., French and British airstrikes, Gaddafi has his ragtag opponents outmanned and outgunned. Unless we explicitly take the side of the rebels — providing air support for their advances, for example — it is hard to imagine how they will ever be able to take much ground.”
In assessing Obama’s actions, it seems to me that comparisons with Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 aren’t particularly useful. The better – although still imperfect – historical analogy is with George H. W. Bush’s action during the first Persian Gulf War. In August, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait, ostensibly in retaliation for Kuwait’s decision to sell oil at prices that threatened to undercut Iraqi’s oil revenues. With his forces completely occupying Kuwait, Hussein appeared poised to take Saudi Arabia next. Bush then made the decision to use military force, including U.S. ground forces, to drive Hussein out of Kuwait. He did so, he later wrote in his memoirs, for primarily moral reasons as opposed to strategic ones. As he debated his options during the course of two months “…I began moving from viewing Saddam’s aggression exclusively as a dangerous strategic threat and an injustice to its reversal as a moral crusade…His disdain for international law…his misrepresentation of what happened, his lies…all contributed, but perhaps it was hearing of the destruction of life in Kuwait which sealed the matter. I became very emotional about the atrocities.”
After securing both U.N. and a congressional resolution of support (the latter on a very close and highly partisan vote), the U.S. began a devastating air attack on Hussein’s force in mid-January, 1991, followed up several weeks later by a ground war that lasted barely 100 hours. In that time much (but not all) of Hussein’s military force was destroyed and he was driven out of Kuwait, with a loss of less than 200 U.S. lives.
And yet, when Bush had the opportunity to move into Iraq and depose Hussein, he held back – a decision that was later much criticized, and which set the stage for the second Iraq war in 2003. In his memoirs, Bush said he felt that occupying “Iraq would shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us, and make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero.” He worried as well about the costs of occupying Iraq – a prescient concern, as it turns out. Instead, as he noted in his diary at the time, he hoped the Iraqi people, led by the military, would take matters into their own hands and rise up against Hussein. This never happened; despite abortive insurrections by the Shi’ites in the south and Kurds in the north, Hussein stayed in power for more than a decade, withstanding the imposition of an American-led no-fly zone, U.N.-led economic sanctions, and the partitioning of his country.
In considering the lessons, if any, that Obama can derive from the two Iraq wars in deciding how to approach Libya, one seems most obvious: there are no risk-free options. The current approach provides no guarantee that Gaddafi won’t crush the rebellion, never mind forcing him from power. Already the Arab League is beginning to voice discontent with the scope of the air attack, and the NATO alliance is squabbling over who is in charge of military strategy. Of course, had he failed to intervene, or intervened more fully, it is likely that Obama would still have been criticized from both the Left and the Right. To date, he has followed the decisionmaking pattern he exhibited when deciding to escalate the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan: essentially splitting the difference between advisers by agreeing to “build up” militarily in order to “build down”. In this case, the no-fly zone is designed to give the rebels breathing room, much as the troop buildup in Afghanistan was intended to allow the Afghans to develop their capacity to police their country. In both cases, however, Obama made clear that there would be no open-ended U.S. military commitment.
In his weekly address today, Obama portrayed the action against Libya using words that are starkly reminiscent of how the first Bush characterized U.S. actions again Hussein in 1991: as a multilateral humanitarian effort, and as a reminder that the U.S., in partnership with its allies, will oppose efforts by totalitarian regimes to commit atrocities against civilians.
The limited no-fly approach is a pragmatic, politically-prudent approach, one that , in theory, hews to the political center of the ideological spectrum – exactly where Obama feels most comfortable. But, as with Bush’s decision not to move against Hussein in 1991, it is also one that runs the risk of pushing the ultimate resolution to the Libya problem down the road. If Gaddafi remains in power a decade from now, will we be praising Obama for his prudence, or criticizing him for lacking “the vision thing”?