Marc Lynch

Benghazi on the Hill

"There’s no outcry in the country to say ‘comply with the War Powers Act,’ outside of academia."  That’s what Senator John McCain told Foreign Policy in an interview a few weeks ago.  How quickly things change. With House Speaker John Boehner presenting an ultimatum for administration compliance with the War Powers Act, and Congressional GOP ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

"There’s no outcry in the country to say ‘comply with the War Powers Act,’ outside of academia."  That’s what Senator John McCain told Foreign Policy in an interview a few weeks ago.  How quickly things change. With House Speaker John Boehner presenting an ultimatum for administration compliance with the War Powers Act, and Congressional GOP leaders hinting at defunding the campaign, the demand that the Obama administration obtain Congressional authorization for the operation in Libya has suddenly become front page news. A full-scale battle over Presidential authority looms.

The administration should have secured authorization for the Libya campaign early on, to put it on solid legal and bipartisan political footing.  Congressional oversight is as important for the Obama administration as it was during the Bush administration — a point which applies to Libya just as it does to drone strikes and global counter-terrorism operations. They probably didn’t do so because they (correctly) expected that a Congressional resolution authorizing the Libya campaign would come to the President’s desk with riders attached repealing health care reform, reinstating Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and abolishing Medicare. But politics shouldn’t be allowed to outweigh the importance of effective Congressional oversight and respecting the rule of law. 

Beyond the political jockeying, however, the sudden burst of attention to Libya should be an opportunity for the public to take a fresh look at what is actually happening in Libya. This is a good time to realize that the war in Libya was very much worth fighting and that it is moving in a positive direction.  A massacre was averted, all the trends favor the rebels, the emerging National Transitional Council is an unusually impressive government in waiting, and a positive endgame is in sight.  This is a war of which the administration should be proud, not one to be hidden away from public or Congressional view.

I supported the intervention in Libya reluctantly, in the face of strong evidence of in impending humanitarian catastrophe and an unprecedented, intense Arab public demand for Western action.  I believe fully that the NATO intervention prevented a major massacre in Benghazi, which would have guaranteed the survival of the Qaddafi regime.  The retaliation campaign which followed the regime’s survival would have been bloodier still. There would have been a chilling effect across the region, encouraging violent repression and demoralizing challengers. And the impact on America’s image in the region of failing to act and allowing the massacre would have been profound. Many of the same people (in the Arab world and in the U.S.) who now lambaste Obama for intervening would have been editorializing about his betrayal of his promises to the Muslims of the world and his indifference to Muslim lives.

I recognize that it is difficult to prove any of this, since it is all counter-factual.  Perhaps Qaddafi would have treated Benghazi gently and refrained from subsequent repression, as many have suggested, despite his history and his public rhetoric (though I wonder how many of these critics would have staked their own lives or the lives of their families on such hopes). Certainly other Arab dictators, from Yemen to Syria, continued to use brutal force despite the example of Libya (though there’s no way to know what they would have done without that example).   I acknowledge that strong arguments could be and have been made about the limited U.S. national interests directly at stake in Libya, and the real dangers of overstretch, but still believe that the importance of preventing a preventable massacre and helping to facilitate real change in Libya outweigh them.  (The argument that this was a war for Libyan oil strikes me as silly, given Qaddafi’s enthusiasm for selling it.) 

The prevailing view seems to be that Libya has become a quagmire, a grinding stalemate with no end in sight.  This is wrong. While nothing is resolved yet, and Qaddafi may still be able to hang on, all the trends are in the favor of the rebels.  There has been a growing cascade of states recognizing the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya, as Qaddafi’s support dries up even in Africa.  There are more and more defections from the Qaddafi regime to the NTC, and — crucially — virtually no examples of anyone moving in the opposite direction.  The rebels are holding territory, and the battle has moved to Tripoli itself.  Qaddafi appears to be running out of money.   Finally, the NTC itself (several of whom I’ve had the opportunity to meet) appears to be an impressive group, with serious technocrats attending to key shadow ministries and a real effort to include and represent all parts of Libya.  

The Libya campaign certainly hasn’t been perfect — far from it! — and many people had strong, legitimate reasons to oppose the intervention.  But there were also strong reasons for intervening.  Much good was done.  Many lives were saved, both immediately in Benghazi and over the longer-term across Libya. The international intervention has helped Libyans to seize the chance for a more democratic and open state which respects the rule of law and human rights. And it was done with NATO in the lead and with serious diplomatic and popular Arab support.   It was worth the fight.

I wish that the Obama administration had obtained Congressional support for the campaign long before it reached today’s crisis point.  But now that we are here, I hope that the administration will make a full-throated case for the Libya intervention– why it was launched, what it accomplished, where it fits into the broader unfolding Arab transformation, and how its success will advance American interests.  

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

Tag: Libya