Libya: A Costly Victory – OpEd


By Graeme Bannerman

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asserted recently that critics of the Libyan mission “have been proven wrong.” Now, with the death of dictator Muammar Qadhafi, the secretary’s view is supported by the overwhelming majority of Washington’s foreign policy establishment.

But this won’t be the first time that Washington may be proven wrong. Even conceding the unlikely outcome that the Libyans overcome their tribal, regional, and political differences to establish a democratic state, the long-term costs of U.S. involvement are likely to far outweigh the benefits.

The first negative fallout was seen in the Russian and Chinese veto of the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria. The Russians and Chinese made it clear that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s abuse of the U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya to ”protect civilians” to justify a policy of regime change will make them reluctant to support future Security Council resolutions — which the United States and NATO could exploit to pursue an expanded agenda.

The Libyan adventure appears to have transformed the Security Council from a potential instrument of U.S. foreign policy to an impediment.

Equally important are those who abstained on the Syrian resolution—India, Brazil, South Africa and Lebanon, as the representative of the Arab League. They also share the concerns about the overreach of U.S. policy. The BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China — lining up against the United States is worrisome. Considering these nations’ economic clout and the need for their support in the important challenges facing the United States, creating unnecessary rifts seems imprudent.

The Arab League resolution expressing concern about Libya and calling for a “no-fly” zone to protect civilians was essential to win international approval for NATO’s intervention. But within days after NATO starting its bombing of Qadhafi forces, the Arab League Secretary General complained that they did not call for bombing, only the establishment of a “no-fly” zone.

Securing Arab League support for action against a member state was unprecedented — and is now unlikely to happen again. Most Arab governments will likely be highly resistant to giving even a hint of approval to foreign intervention in the internal affairs of one of their members.

Trust in the word of the United States has been significantly harmed. The international distrust is likely to far outlast the joys of military victory and Qadhafi’s demise.

Non-proliferation policy has also been made more difficult. Many are suggesting that NATO would not have attacked Libya if Qadhafi had not negotiated away his weapons of mass destruction. Obtaining weapons of mass destruction appears to many as the only way to protect against Western intimidation. So getting people to abandon attempts to obtain WMD has become more difficult.

Even more important is the damage done to American democracy.

The administration’s failure to obtain congressional approval for the military operation sets an unfortunate precedent. Making matters worse, the White House asserted that it was authorized to take military action by the U.N. Security Council. The idea that the administration has time to get Security Council approval for sending U.S. citizens to war, but does not have time or need to get congressional approval is a serious setback for U.S. democracy.

Congress, with all of its faults, remains the people’s elected representative and it must not be excluded from the decision of going to war. The idea that the president believes that some unelected international institution gives him, as the elected leader of the American people, the authority to go to war is a significant diminution of U.S. democracy

The entire operation was funded by executive branch fiat. No request for congressional funding was made. Such a request would have required Congress to debate the policy.

According to the administration, $1.1 billion of Defense Department funds were spent in Libya. No one has stated the cost in intelligence and clandestine funds. If the executive branch of government can expend such sums outside the constitutional process, where approval of all expenditures must begin in the House, what chance do the American people have to establish control over government spending?

President Barack Obama asserted that we were going to war because American values were being threatened. The United States had an obligation to prevent a massacre of Libyan citizens.

Historically, the United States went to war when American lives were in danger or our national interest was threatened. In this case, the president alone decided what American values were and when they were being threatened. In democracies, the people determine national values.

One cannot promote democratic values abroad while weakening those same values at home.

Graeme Bannerman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, is a former staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This Commentary was first published as an op-ed in Politico on October 21, 2011 and is reprinted with permission.


Founded in 1946, the Middle East Institute is the oldest Washington-based institution dedicated solely to the study of the Middle East. Its founders, scholar George Camp Keiser and former US Secretary of State Christian Herter, laid out a simple mandate: “to increase knowledge of the Middle East among the citizens of the United States and to promote a better understanding between the people of these two areas.”

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