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How the Left Got Libya Wrong

I remember sitting by a pool in August 1990 with my friend Fred Siegel discussing George H.W. Bush’s “drawing a line in the sand” after Iraq had invaded Kuwait. “My comrades on the left can’t be against this,” I announced to Fred, but I was dead wrong. Within days, my own publication, In These Times, and others had raised specters of another Vietnam and of U.S. imperialism. I have had a similar experience of shock and awe today as I looked at various blogs and websites that air opinion on the left. With some notable exceptions (like Juan Cole), all I have found is opposition to the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in Libya.

So I ask myself, would these opponents of U.S. intervention (as part of U.N. Security Council approved action), have preferred:

(1) That gangs of mercenaries, financed by the country’s oil wealth, conduct a bloodbath against Muammar Qaddafi’s many opponents?
(2) That Qaddafi himself, wounded, enraged, embittered, and still in power, retain control of an important source of the world’s oil supply, particularly for Europe, and be able to spend the wealth he derives from it to sow discord in the region?
(3) And that the movement toward democratization in the Arab world—which has spread from Tunisia to Bahrain, and now includes such unlikely locales as Syria—be dealt an enormous setback through the survival of one of region’s most notorious autocrats?

If you answer “Who cares?” to each of these, I have no counter-arguments to offer, but if you worry about two or three of these prospects, then I think you have to reconsider whether Barack Obama did the right thing in lending American support to this intervention.

I myself would have preferred Obama to have taken leadership several weeks ago in assembling a coalition, and building support, for intervention. If the current coalition had intervened two weeks ago, even with a no-fly zone (which opponents of intervention were claiming would take weeks to impose), Qaddafi would probably be in Caracas by now, and many lives would have been spared. Obama had to be shamed into taking leadership, as Bill Clinton was when French President Jacques Chirac, after a visit to Washington in June 1995, complained that the post of leader of the free world was “vacant.”

Moreover, Obama did the absolutely worst thing—he called for Qaddafi’s ouster, but did not do anything about it, and discouraged others from doing so. It’s one thing for Costa Rica to call for the ouster of an African despot. It’s quite another thing for the United States, which is still the major outside power in the region, to do so. Obama’s call for Qaddafi’s ouster encouraged Libyan rebels to push ahead in the hope of American active support, only to face Qaddafi’s mercenary armies. There were echoes of George H.W. Bush encouraging a Shia rebellion during the 1991 Gulf War, but then allowing Saddam to slaughter his opponents.

Obama and the United States have certainly benefitted from not intervening earlier. Because the administration has had its hand visibly forced by the French and British, the U.S. cannot be portrayed by American foes in the region as taking the lead in the operation. If the intervention becomes protracted, the U.S., already embroiled in two wars, may not have to carry the principal responsibility for maintaining it.

But there are grave disadvantages to having waited this long. The United States and its partners can’t simply impose a no-fly zone and hope that Qaddafi will emigrate, or that Libya will divide peacefully into east and west. It has to do what, contrary to public pronouncements, it seems to be doing: knocking out Qaddafi’s mercenary forces and preparing the way for a rebel victory. That has already caused dissension from the Arab League, but if the U.S. and its allies do not want to reinforce a bloody status quo, they have little choice but to seek Qaddafi’s ouster.

Critics of the intervention have warned that if it succeeds in getting rid of Qaddafi, the new Libyan government may not embrace democracy. That’s very possible. Oil economies are susceptible to authoritarian rule, and Libya does not even have Egypt’s prior experience with a parliament. But there is reason to be hopeful about a post-Qaddafi Libya. It will have become part of an experiment in democratization that is now taking place across North Africa. Its resources will remain under its control, and in contrast to a triumphant Qaddafi, they are not likely to be used geopolitically. And there is no evidence that global terrorist movements will find a welcome there.

Two other considerations: Should Obama, as some critics have charged, have gone to Congress for a war powers resolution? I am not sure there was time for a full-scale debate. He should certainly have consulted with the legislature, but the fact that he didn’t is not a reason to call the planes back to their carriers. Finally, isn’t Obama repeating the same mistakes that George W. Bush did when he invaded Iraq in order to oust a despot? There’s a big difference between then and now: The United States is supporting an active revolt; it is preventing carnage; and it is encouraging real, rather than imagined, democratic movements across the region. These are all reasons why, even at this late date, and with uncertain prospects, it made sense to intervene.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.