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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beldar on Welch on "Obama's Doctrine of Preemptive War"

I like Matt Welch, the editor in chief of Reason.com. He's funny and perceptive, and right more often than wrong. He's not someone who I typically find to be guilty of fuzzy, confused writing or speaking. But his essay on Obama's Doctrine of Preemptive War (h/t Instapundit) is, in important respects, an exception.

Suppose in 2003, after seeing us take down Saddam, Kadafi's reaction had instead been to re-double his own WMD program. It's easy to imagine how that might have justified a preemptive war if other means failed to dissuade him from that course. (Of course, it's also easy to imagine how it might have been fumbled: for examples we need look no farther than North Korea, and now Iran.)

But that's not what happened. Instead, after he saw Saddam pried out of his spider hole, Kadafi voluntarily gave up his WMD program and restrained the degree and severity of his export of terrorism. As a consequence, the war in Libya now is by no means the same kind of preemptive war that we waged in Iraq in 2003 — one in which we fired the first shots because we were convinced we were going to be in a fight soon anyway, and a much worse fight than if we hadn't waited. What we're "preempting" now in Libya is not a threat to the United States, but to Libya's citizen population, including but not at all limited to the very substantial fraction of it who were actively demonstrating against Kadafi. Deciding when, and how much, war is justified in those circumstances is also quite controversial and difficult, but it's a different kind of controversy and difficulty than those which attend the question of starting a genuinely preemptive war.

Kadafi broke parole. The forebearance he'd bought by cooperation after his past acts of international terrorism, he forfeited when he started using heavy weapons indiscriminately on his population — but not because that put us at risk in the U.S. in any direct or immediate way.

What makes Libya a country of strategic importance to America — why military intervention to depose Kadafi now is justified strategically, when military intervention to depose many other dictators committing attrocities isn't justified strategically — is indeed a common factual thread with the Iraq situation. In neither country could America afford to see a return to active WMD development and production, active export of international terrorism, or active shelter of international terrorists because those countries' bad acts could be multiplied and magnified by their oil money.

Much of Welch's criticism of the Obama Administration's badly mixed messages is spot on, and similar to what I (and many others) have been saying. (Obama doesn't like to talk about Libya's oil, a naive self-imposed blindfold of political correctness which ends up hampering his explanation of America's genuine strategic interests.) But the mere fact that there is a common strategic thread with the Iraq War — which is that terrorism-exporting WMD-seeking countries with oil money are extra dangerous and therefore extra important to the U.S. — still doesn't turn this intervention in Libya into a "preemptive war."

This isn't a war we started. Kadafi started it, against his own civilians. Given that, strategic interests now have to be considered in deciding upon what we should do, it's true. But the whole debate about whether the grave and gathering dangers are sufficient to wage a preemptive war became moot once Kadafi started the shooting. At that point, the question wasn't war versus peace, but war with or without our involvement. Welch does no one any favors by confusing that point.

And contra Welch, my concern is not that Obama is too committed now to the doctrine of preemptive war. My concern — see, again, Iran — is that he's already effectively ruled it out when we certainly shouldn't.

Posted by Beldar at 06:45 AM in Foreign Policy, Global War on Terror, History, Obama | Permalink


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(1) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Mar 30, 2011 7:37:55 PM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: If we were bombing hell out of Tehran, I could buy your argument. But Libya? Shucks, half of African governments slaughter their own citizens, as do a sizable hunk of the Trashcanistan countries bordering the Middle East. Russia. China. Paraguay. Peru and the "Shining Path." The world is full of countries that see their citizenry as so much rubbish to be heaved onto the ash pile.

The real objection I have to this war is that a lazy dolt is fighting it. Who can doubt that The One's witlessness and short attention span will cause this war to be far bloodier than it should be, and make The One even more determined to do the wrong thing when he has to make a decision. I can't see the precedent of bypassing Congress completely while groveling at the UN dunghill making things any better either. Welch also has a point that wars abroad make change at home harder than ever.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(2) Michele Bachmann-Turner made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 10:34:29 AM | Permalink

Beldar, I'm enjoying your blog posts as always.

I find it interesting that you use Iraq - Iraq! One of the biggest policy failures in American history! - as strategic justification for a full-scale, American-sponsored military intervention in Libya. Oh my goodness!

If it's OK with you, I'd like to test your will to wage war in Libya with a few simple questions. Let's see how badly you want Khadafi out of there ...

1. Precisely how many American troops would you be willing to send into Libya?

2. Approximately much taxpayer money would you be willing to spend?

3. How many American lives are worth sacrificing to oust Khadafi? (That's the most important question.

I have a few additional questions which could arguably be construed as unfair, because no one appears able to answer these questions: Who would take over for Khadafi, assuming the United States successfully ousted Khadafi? Would the new regime have any ties to Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization? What types of commitments would the U.S. need to make in rebuilding a post-Khadafi Libya?

(3) Beldar made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 4:04:28 PM | Permalink

Michele in comment #2 above (a/k/a "Friend #1" in drag, and showing your age), you're stuck in 2007, with your party leader Harry Reid lamenting that the war in Iraq is lost, lost. The Iraq War will indeed be seen by history as an American triumph. I hope your fellow partisans will stick to your position, however, and indeed, make it the cornerstone of Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign.

But oh! I forgot! Vice President Biden has already declared Iraq to be one of OBAMA's great triumphs. Are you out of step, or is he?

Re your questions:

(1) Enough to do the job. I'm not a general and I don't know about the supply train and whatnot, but I'm pretty sure one Stryker brigade, with ample support from American air- and sea-power and special ops, could take down Kadafi in 10 days. Nobody really argues otherwise, and you'd be smart to instead shift your arguments to the troops and civilian administrators that would be required afterwards. Regime change is easy. We could literally do it with a press of a button if we didn't care about collateral damage, but we've gotten pretty good (not perfect) at using non-nuclear military force to effect regime change with minimal civilian losses. And of course the alternative — Kadafi left in power — would produce vastly more civilian casualties. Nation-building is indeed hard, slow, and expensive by comparison, but it's much harder in some places and at some times than others.

(2) Again, enough to do the job. How much would you pay to avoid a nuclear 9/11, or a series of them? Protecting our national interests is indeed costly, unless we compare it to the alternatives. I'm spectacularly uninterested in hearing Democrats complaining about necessary costs to preserve American security, given that your party has turned the domestic budget into a weapon of mass destruction. Obama's budget deficit for just this year exceeds the total cumulative cost of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars going back to 2001, so I hope you won't take offense when I point out that you, and every other Democrat, lack political or moral standing to make this argument. It's terribly amusing when you try, but it becomes tiresome very quickly.

(3) I don't think the loss of American warriors' lives in taking down Kadafi would be very large, and although of course each death or injury is a tragedy, that is the nature of the military's deadly business. In historical perspective, the losses we've had in Afghanistan and Iraq have been very, very small — less than the killed and wounded on only the last day of WW1, for example, after we already had an armistice agreement in place, or less than just the Union casualties lost by Grant in the course of a morning at Cold Harbor that gained him not an inch of ground. I reject the Hard Left's version of an American giant reduced to inaction by pygmies and thugs and, especially, its own irrational reluctance to act.

Re your additional questions: No one knows who will succeed Kadafi. That will be up to the Libyan people when they get a fair chance to choose. They should do that, however, knowing that in the future, if Libya harbors terrorists, exports terrorism, or pursues WMDs, it will again be confronting America — an America that's not afraid to act in its own interests. So I hope that the Libyans will choose a government that doesn't include elements of al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, or other radical organizations. We should use all influence and persuasive ability that we obtain through toppling Kadafi to try to avoid that result. But ultimately it's up to them to choose.

Regarding the continuing commitments of the United States, they will eventually become what we commit to all countries — fair treatment, economic opportunity, and peaceful coexistence — but obviously in the short and middle term, we'll be more involved in helping the Libyans achieve a working self-government. There are far more reasons to be hopeful about their ability to reach that point relatively quickly than there are in Afghanistan. Ultimately, Iraq and Libya have in common the ability to finance, from their oil resources, a functioning country. Afghanistan is a much more ambitious project, and I expect it will take much longer. But that's no reason to let Kadafi stay in power in Libya, is it?

(4) Beldar made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 5:02:18 PM | Permalink

Mr. Koster (#1), there are many other countries whose rulers are killing their civilians — typically not on the scale that Kadafi has just undertaken, nor using heavy weapons in the manner he has. I'll agree that, for example, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is roughly as evil as Mumar Kadafi, and the civilians he's killed are just as dead as the civilians Kadafi has killed in Libya. The difference — as I have said over and over again — is that those countries don't have the oil wealth that Libya (or Iraq) have, nor the histories of using it to pursue WMDs, harbor international terrorists, and export terrorism against American targets.

(5) Michele Bachmann-Turner made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 5:59:20 PM | Permalink

Beldar, do you honestly believe the Iraq War will be "seen by history as an American triumph"?? Forgive me for temporarily usurping your wit, but you are either stuck in 2003 with Dick Cheney, in a fact-proof bunker, or you have an extremely low threshold for declaring American triumphs under Republican presidents.

Our nation has sacrificed 4,500 brave, American troops and nearly a trillion dollars, in order to rid the world of WMD's that didn't exist. You might think it was worth it and you are entitled to your opinion. But an overwhelming majority of Americans would be against a military invasion of Iraq if we had to do it all over again.

I'll address your responses, which I sincerely appreciate, despite that you never really answered my questions. I'm glad you are "pretty sure" we could take down Khadafi in 10 days. The military invasion of Iraq lasted approximately six weeks, yet we are still over there and have placed hundreds of thousands of troops and private contractors in harm's way throughout the war, which is now in its ninth year. My first question was, how many troops would you be willing to send to Libya? "Enough to do the job" is not an acceptable answer to a country that is already fighting two wars and still trying to extricate itself from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

You side-stepped question number two, relating to potential cost. (You mention something about a nuclear 9/11, but you'll have to please explain what you are talking about. I haven't heard anyone, not even Republican opinion leaders like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, argue that Khadafi is on the verge of attacking the United States with nuclear weapons.) There are no doubt a great many Republicans who believe America has unlimited money to spray all over the world in war and nation-building exercises, and y'all are certainly entitled to that opinion. We'll just have to agree to disagree. I believe we should balance humanitarian interests with fiscal prudence, while protecting our American troops to the fullest extent practicable.

You ducked question number three. Historical reference isn't helpful; we're not fighting World War I or the Civil War. Our way of life and existence are not presently threatened by Khadafi. He was a grave threat to his own people and our Commander in Chief did the right thing by ordering a no-fly zone. Every Democrat, Republican and Independent in the United States Senate supported the president's no-fly zone with our coalition partners. Now it is up to the rebels - whoever the heck these people are - to determine whether it is possible to change their own government.

In 2003, we had a no-fly zone in Iraq. We had no credible proof that Iraq represented an imminent threat to America. Unfortunately, we had a trigger-happy president who either didn't care or simply failed to grasp the cost (in blood and treasure) of a full-scale war and occupation in the Middle East.

And you want us to do it again?? That's unbelievable, Beldar.

(6) Beldar made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 6:39:29 PM | Permalink

Our nation has sacrificed 4,500 brave, American troops and nearly a trillion dollars, in order to rid the world of WMD's that didn't exist.

No, that wasn't the only reason we went in — read the Congressional authorization, in which WMDs that we all thought were there were cited as just one of many reasons. We went in to remove Saddam from power, and we did that. We could have walked away and left chaos, but we didn't do that.

Now, instead — and yes, at substantial cost in treasure and lives — there is an imperfect fledgling democracy there, and Iraq is more at peace, and its people vastly more free, than at any time since at least the early 1970s. How long that lasts cannot yet be determined, but yes, anyone who is not willfully self-blinded by partisanship can recognize that Iraq is an American triumph. If you have the guts to argue that the Iraqi people, the United States, or the world was better off with Saddam in power, I'd like to hear that argument presented calmly and in detail, please, because I'm quite confident that it's wrong and I don't think you can do it with a straight face. I'm thoroughly sick and tired of this disingenuous, deceitful "there were no WMDs!" argument, and indeed, it was decisively rejected by the American public in the 2004 election. If that's your whole game, you need to find a new one.

I gave you a very specific answers to one of your questions. You don't like my "one Stryker brigade" answer, but you don't attempt to prove me wrong by, e.g., pointing to Kadafi's fearsome military machine. And that's a good thing, because he doesn't have one. Surely you know, my friend, that the quickest way to destroy your credibility would be to claim that Kadafi can take us on militarily. Literally no one, including Kadafi, believes that.

Mind you well that you don't convert what I'm about to say into something else, or misread it, but: Kadafi's only hope is to persuade enough leftists in the U.S., Britain, and France that this isn't worth the candle and we ought to leave him "in his box." I'm not saying you or anyone on the left is his deliberate ally or anything remotely like that, and I'm not questioning your patriotism. But a political victory handed to him by the left is Kadafi's last hope of survival. Surely you must see that. Whatever your purposes, can you not see how disastrous that result would be and what message it would send to, for example, similar tyrants in Syria and Iran?

Your question about how many American lives are worth sacrificing is an attempt to bait me — no satisfactory numerical answer can be given, and you've ignored my more general answer, with which I remain entirely satisfied. I know that rhetorical game, and I've used it myself during cross-examination in court; but I won't permit myself to be played with it here on my blog, counselor. The skill with which you've attempted it (twice now) is noted and appreciated, but your objection is overruled, your exception duly noted, and I invite you to move to a new, and better, line of argument.

You also well know, and do yourself no favors by ignoring, the fact that Kadafi had an active nuclear weapons program before we dug Saddam out of his spider hole. He will return to it now, using Libya's oil wealth to do so, if we but let him — you're not a fool, so I know you won't deny that. We must not leave him in power.

Do you disagree with Obama on this? He has said Kadafi "must go," and for once, I agree. (Of course, being Obama, he's also said lots of other at least partially inconsistent things, so whether he will stick with this one, I can't predict. But I will be constant even in the face of his inconsistency.)

(7) Beldar made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 6:47:15 PM | Permalink

Every Democrat, Republican and Independent in the United States Senate supported the president's no-fly zone with our coalition partners.

Oh, my lord, I just noticed you've tried to repeat the Obama Administration's claim that the undebated voice-vote on Senate Resolution No. 85, which "urge[d] the United Nations Security Council to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory," constituted a proper Congressional authorization for what Obama's already done or may do with American military assets.

Seriously? You really want to be on record with that?

You know I have a broad view of the POTUS' inherent authority as C-in-C, and I have serious doubts about the constitutionality of the War Powers Act. But I'm still not willing to pretend that Congress, or even just the Senate, has already taken any vote that authorizes any of this. Are you, really? That very much surprises me. Or are you just being kind of Clintonesque with the word "support," using it to mean something a whole lot less than "voted to authorize"? Because what the Obama Administration is claiming about the intent and scope of that resolution is just outright dishonest.

Are you saying you're happy with the degree to which Obama has or hasn't consulted Congress, Friend #1?

(8) Beldar made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 7:41:34 PM | Permalink

FWIW to other readers: My regard and affection for Friend #1 (a/k/a Michele on this thread) and Andrew (who commented last week) is real and very deep. Friend #1 knows, for example, that by suggesting I must be in a bunker with Dick Cheney, he's giving no offense, because I still like Dick Cheney.

My friend Andrew lamented to me over lunch about a bug in Typepad's commenting routines that prevented him from making a correction to one of his comments, and upon learning from me that roughly 5000 people had viewed that post, he lamented that each of them must think him an idiot for that uncorrected error (a misunderstanding of something I'd said that was indeed somewhat ambiguous).

My reply is: Everyone, certainly including me, makes mistakes, and of those 5000 people, I hope at least a thousand of them came here with either an open mind or an inclination to disagree with me, otherwise I'm persuading no one. Some number of those surely agree with him, or with Friend #1 here.

Opposing points of view are genuinely welcome here as long as they're expressed with civility, and these real life friends are snarky and sharp, but never un-civil.

(9) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Apr 3, 2011 12:05:45 AM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: Mugabe me no Mugabes. My post clearly said "bombing Tehran," i.e. Iran. All the points you raise about the danger Libya poses are twenty times more true for Iran. Oil dough? Check check check. Led by zanies without sense or dignity? Check to the moon. Interest in obtaining nuclear weapons? Not even the formerly pseudonymous and no wonder M B-T would try to deny Iranian grasping for fission weapons. So why on earth are we attacking Libya? It's as if on 8 December 41, Franklin Roosevelt appeared before Congress to ask for a declation of war against Spain, because after all, Franco is a ruthless dictator who overthrew a popularly chosen governement, and the Spaniards would be better off with him gone.

You say that these two pseudonymous friends of yours are sharp. I will take your word for this. That given, what's viewpoint is left to view their arguments? How on earth can either of them swallow The One's sailing off on this wild, idiotic adventure? Suppose I had claimed on this blog in October 2008 that, if elected, The One would sponsor an attack on Libya by March 2011. You'd have sent me a bottle of aspirin and told me to comment again when my fever broke. Yet here we are, where even the odious Andrew Sullivan howls in protest against this 180 degree spin. And all either of them want to do is refight Iraq. Would either of them have anything but a blank, vacuous stare for Winston Churchill's "In War: Resolution" maxim? But The One is learning the need for resolution, though he is fighting it hard and will doubtless triumph, resuming his 160 proof enjoying presidential high life basketball picking, golf playing career. No wonder he returned the Churchill bust. WSC is the anti-Obama, and The One knows it. Bah.

As to the other points: Killing Khadafy is a minimum goal. Leave him alive, and he's vindictive, with plenty of dough stashed abroad to start his own underground terrorist campaign in the manner of Lockerbie, either as private citizen in exile, or the head of a weakened govt. Khadafy dead, and Libya has a chance, no more, of stepping free of its bloody past. I am pessimistic about this, given:

a) its neighbors. Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan are not beacons of democracy.
b) the Europeans, ie. France and Italy, that look on Libya's oil the way a cat examines a cheeseburger. What the hell do they care for democracy in Libya
c) Libya as a distraction from Iran.

The One can have Libya. The One can also have your two friends as supporters. I will make book that history will look far less critically at the Iraq adventure than this Libyan stunt. But it will look far more critically at a fissiparous West that sees its enemies as either children to be appeased for past sins or a convenient stick with which to beat domestic political opponents. History has not treated Neville Chamberlain's conduct of war from September 1939 to May 1940 kindly. The One is in for harsh treatment even from the corrupt degraged academies of today.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(10) Beldar made the following comment | Apr 3, 2011 12:32:47 AM | Permalink

Mr. Koster (#9): I mentioned Mogabe as an example of a murderous dictator running a country in which the U.S. does not have vital strategic interests. We agree that Iran, by very sharp contrast, presents a vast and dangerous problem, one that the U.S. government is still refusing to address adequately. I dread the "I told you so" party you and I (and many others) will be entitled to host when they go nuclear. By pre-WW2 standards, no one could dispute that Iran has been at war with us continuously since 1979. We agree about Churchill. We mostly agree about Obama.

And "fissiparous" is my vocabulary word for today!

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