Writing in the New York Times, opinionist Roger Cohen pats himself and our president on the back for our successful intervention in Libya:
The intervention has been done right — with the legality of strong United Nations backing, full support from America’s European allies, and quiet arming of the rebels. The Libyan people have been freed from a crazed tyranny. Unlike in Iraq, burdens were shared: America flew the intelligence missions and did the refueling while the French, British, Dutch and others did most of the bombing. Iraq was the wrong prism through which to look at Libya. I’m glad I resisted that temptation. Another cycle has begun.
In the end, I think interventionism is inextricable from the American idea. If the United States retreats into isolationism, it ceases to be itself — a nation dedicated, however much it falls short, to a universalist ideal of freedom.
There are no fixed doctrinal answers — a successful Libyan intervention does not mean one in Syria is feasible — but the idea that the West must at times be prepared to fight for its values against barbarism is the best hope for a 21st century less cruel than the 20th.
Let us leave aside for a moment the, “if it feels good (and Paris gets on board), do it” nature of Cohen’s strategic ambiguity, one that differentiates between Libyan tyranny and the Syrian brand, although this is a very tempting target: If a sitting US president feels free to select his military adventures based upon the whimsies of Europe, but without the consent of Congress, the Republic has entered hitherto unexplored territory.
I will also let slide Cohen’s Francophilic contrast between the Libyan effort (good / ultimate outcome very much in doubt) and the one that deposed Saddam Hussein (bad / resulted in world’s sole Arab democracy). Op-Ed writers are free to endorse or decry overseas military interventions based on the political party of the Commander-in-Chief, military officers (and veterans) ought to maintain an effects-based standard. For the sake of tact, let us also – as Mr. Cohen does – omit reference to the international intervention in Somalia, which resulted in a significant tactical defeat whose effects had monstrous strategic consequences that we are preparing to commemorate in 12 days time.
Instead of his contrasts, let us instead focus on Cohen’s likening of the Libyan campaign to the NATO efforts to protect Bosnians and Kosovars: Bosnia required 60,000 pairs of NATO boots on the ground during the “implementation” stage of peacemaking once the combatants had been bombed and separated. There were 12,000 SFOR troops there until 2004. There are 2,500 NATO forces there today. Meanwhile, over in Kosovo, the the commander of the KFOR forces – whose command was established in 1999 heading 60,000 coalition forces – is requesting additional troops to augment the 6,000 he has on hand today.
Libya’s Transitional National Council is not asking for ground forces to stabilize their impending victory over the Ghaddafi clique; instead they ask for money, arms and air power. We provide that air power even though the threat Ghaddafi’s forces pose to the Libyan people – the explicit purpose of the UN mandate authorizing NATO’s intervention there – is effectively neutralized. There is virtually no chance that any European ground force will emplace itself in Libya even if they were requested. That’s no hit against European manhood, neither have the American people stomach for another fly-speck patch of sand from whence to bury their sons. Thus we must trustfully embrace the Libyan people, and hope that they somehow craft out of the dust of the ancien regime something less wholly awful than that which it replaces.
And here is what we know today about the Libyan people: They were the highest per capita contributors of suicide bombers in Iraq.
I’m no apologist for Colonel Ghaddafi or his thugs: If his head had been cooling on a platter these last 23 years, that would have been for me insufficient justice. But there is a great deal of hope surrounding this latest blossom in the so-called “Arab spring”. And hope, we are continually reminded, is not a strategy. All we know for certain is that we have witnessed the detailed destruction of more or less cooperative governments with intelligence networks that used to provide us pretty useful information about a very dangerous part of the world. We do not yet know what will take their place, and we have next to no direct influence on the course of unfolding events.
With respects to Mr. Cohen, it is rather too soon for self-congratulation.