Top Ten Mistakes in the Libya War

In the post-World War II international legal regime, there are only two grounds for going to war, according to the United Nations Charter. One is self-defense. The other is if the United Nations Security Council authorizes war for the preservation of international order or (with the passage of the Genocide Convention) for the prevention of crimes against humanity. The UNSC authorized intervention in Libya, and “deputized” any nations that felt the inclination to step up to this international obligation. The Libya intervention, in and of itself, is therefore legal in international law in a way that the Iraq War was not. I personally believe that the UN attempt to forbid unilateral aggressive war is absolutely central to our survival on earth, and although it has had many failures, it is an ideal worth reaching for. Its corollary is that there are occasionally justified uses of force, but only a UNSC resolution can make them legal. Given this situation, it is desirable that the UNSC be expanded, with the addition, at the least, of India and Pakistan (you can’t add just one, and the Muslim world needs permanent representation) and of Brazil and a major African country.

That the Libyan intervention is legal does not mean that the war has been prosecuted wisely. I urged after the UNSC resolution that it be a limited intervention aiming at protecting civilians from Muammar Qaddafi’s vicious attacks on innocent crowds and reckless endangerment of non-combatants in the tenement buildings being shelled by his tanks and cluster bombs, and from his forces’ relentless rolling of tanks on Free Libya cities.

Here, it seems to me, are the mistakes made so far in the prosecution of the war:

1. President Barack Obama should have gone to Congress for authorization to stay in the Libya war. Not doing so weakened the legitimacy of the war in the US public, and involved his setting aside the legal advice he received from government lawyers. He could have set a precedent for the return to constitutional rule in the US, but tragically declined to take up that opportunity. (I have held this position from the beginning, by the way). But a corollary I am not sure American nationalists will accept is that even if Congress authorizes a war, in the absence of an attack on the US, that would be illegal in international law unless the UNSC signed off on it. That is what did not happen with regard to Iraq. Those criticizing Obama now often did not criticize W., and often still do not, for a much more important legal violation.

2. NATO has focused on a ‘shock and awe’ strategy of pounding the capital, Tripoli, especially targetting the compound of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Shock and awe does not work, and to the extent that it looks like a targeted assassination, it raised questions in critics’ minds about the purpose of the intervention. If command and control is being hit to protect noncombatants from military operations against them, this should be explained more clearly by NATO generals and specifics given.

3. The Arab League called for the intervention, but aside from some missions flown by Qatar and some sort of support from the UAE, it is unclear that they have been involved. Provoking international intervention but then sitting back (and often carping) made the effort look like a Western attack on a Middle Eastern government, of which we have had quite enough in modern history. If the Arab League cared enough to set this war in motion, it should have been willing to have its air forces more openly involved and to have its air force generals give interviews, and demonstrate that the region as well as the world cares about the Libyan people.

4. NATO has been incredibly slow to find ways of effectively coordinating with the Free Libya forces.

5. NATO put its emphasis on taking out command and control in the capital instead of vigorously protecting civilian cities under attack. The sieges of Misrata and of the Western Mountain regions went on for weeks with very limited NATO intervention. It is incredible that Qaddafi could roll tanks across the open desert and then concertedly shell noncombatants in cities without it being possible to intervene aerially.

6. NATO (and this where the Arab League could have helped) has been incredibly slow in developing the ability to coordinate with Free Libya forces, who are the ones who must necessarily assert themselves against Qaddafi’s special forces and mercenaries.

7. The US should have already recognized the Transitional National Council in Benghazi. What, are we vacillating about whose side we are on?

8. The $70 bn. in Qaddafi’s assets frozen in the US should have been handed over to the TNC by now and/or used for relief purposes for Free Libya cities where residents are suffering from shortages of staples. The rebels need a big influx of cash if they are to be able to convince people that there is more to this struggle than just the infliction of suffering on ordinary people.

9. The Qaddafi family needs to be offered comfortable exile and guaranteed against extradition, as a sweetener for them to leave. Once they are out of the way, I predict that this struggle could end swiftly.

10. Egypt and Tunisia, who have high stakes in this struggle, need to admit that publicly and to be more pro-active in helping Free Libya, which will be their neighbor once this whole thing is over.

I think the UNSC did the right thing in calling for international intervention here. I can’t understand why the same people who have complained endlessly about the West, or the world, standing by while large numbers of people were killed in the Congo, Rwanda, Darfur, etc., are now cavilling that something practical has been done to stop the crushing of Benghazi et al.

But aerial intervention, as was discovered in the Balkans, is a very difficult way of going to war. It is slow, and uncertain, and accelerates war-weariness. In addition to the strategic and tactical mistakes, however, in this war political mistakes have worsened the situation.

War excites a lot of passions, as it should since it is so serious a matter. But it also excites a lot of black and white thinking, which is bad. Either you are for wholeheartedly or against. Some will take my essay today as a sign that I have become diffident. Not true. As I said, I think the UNSC did the right thing, and that those NATO and Arab League countries that have stepped up to the challenge are acting in accordance with international law, and that, whatever their ultimate motives, the side effect of their intervention has in fact been the salvation of thousands of lives and of a political movement for a freer Libya. But I think we would have all been better off if the emphasis had remained on civilian protection first and foremost, if better coordination with locals had be achieved more quickly, if the US component had comported with the US constitution, and if the Arab League had not lacked the courage of its convictions. If you go back through my previous essays on these subjects, I think you will find that I have been consistent on these emphases.

And, I remain convinced that the attrition inflicted on Qaddafi’s heavy armor and other capabilities over time will lead to the end of his regime, and that most likely the remaining elites in Tripoli will find an accommodation with the TNC in Benghazi, and eventually the country will move to parliamentary elections. I’d give this scenario an 80% chance of eventuating. But life is unpredictable, and in the 20% things go bad. Given what a catastrophe Qaddafi has been for Africa and his people, though, I’m not sure even that would be worse than his remaining in power to help crush the remnants of the Arab Spring (he is allied with Syria, e.g.)

Posted in Libya | 53 Responses | Print |

53 Responses

  1. As to #3 the League called for intervention to prevent mass slaughter, they most certainly did NOT call for intervention for the purpose of deposing Qaddafi. Once it became clear that NATO’s purpose was regime change, we are fortunate they did not bail out altogether.

    I would have said that starting the intervention with the stated prmary purpose of “preventing massive loss of life” and changing it only afterward to the ouster of Qaddafi would be probably the biggest mistake of the lot.

  2. Thank you for this sanity!…

    The one thing I disagree with is that ‘targeted assassination’ is inherently wrong. In a case like this especially, if Muammar and Saif (especially, among the offspring) were surgically removed, I believe that would be the ABSOLUTE fastest way to end the genocide. Saying that a leader’s life is in ANY WAY more important than the lives of many, many soldiers and civilians is brainwashing that allows for the prolongation of more wars than can probably be counted.

    • i hear what you’re saying but maybe we should go ahead and try to count them just so we know what we’re talking about here. if we are going to be surgeons, and if we seriously want to specialize in these kinds of operations (and in the name of democracy!) then we should probably make sure that we are at least trying to make it look like our actions are based on science rather than lazy speculation and metaphysics.

    • There are no things like “targeted assassinations”, for the simple reason that “assassianations” are by definition “targeted” (or else they would be “random killings”.) To qualify a word like “assassination” is to weaken it somehow.
      So why do people do it? Once upon a time Israel demanded from the Western Press to call Israeli assassinations “targeted killings”, a euphemism that sounds much more innocent. The Western Press obliged, and the word “assassination” was replaced by the words “targeted killing”. But after some years, the word “assassination” came slowly back and is now again quite often used, though in a somewhat different form; as a hybrid so to speak, in which the original word and the Israeli euphemism are combined; therefore “targeted” assassination.
      A succes for Israeli propaganda, one has to admit….

  3. [The $70 bn. in Qaddafi’s assets frozen in the US]

    Typical number is about $40 bln. link to
    It would be interesting to find out how $70 bln are calcaulated.

    Also, one can’t imagine USG freezing $70 bln corporate assets for any reason whatsoever, even $700 mln look far too much.

    This is called nationalization and considered to be a mortal Socialist sin. Corporate bailouts are a completely different matter, of course.

  4. Why would Pakistan be better than Indonesia as the Muslim world’s permanent rep on the UNSC? Nuclear weapons?

    • I was wondering why Pakistan instead of Indonesia myself. More importantly the UN shouldn’t hand out Security Council seats on the basis of religion. If that’s the case then Buddhism should also be represented, the country being Thailand.

  5. Juan, I’m pretty much a fan, but I think you misread the whole situation. Humanitarian intervention is just camouflage for other purposes. How could you trust NATO to act responsibly after their performances in Afghanistan and Iraq? They have their colonial agenda, and that’s the whole story. Nothing to do with protecting civilians. That’s the last thing on their mind (except for camouflage). Anyway I still admire your courage and your knowledge. So keep on truckin’.

    • This is a dodge.

      The concept of humanitarian intervention poses a lot of problems for people who approach international politics from the left. It forces them to answer a lot of difficult questions, to engage in difficult efforts to weigh competing imperatives on both the theoretical and operational level.

      So difficult, in fact, that many give up altogether and project an ill-fitting narrative onto events just because it’s a familiar one that’s easier for them to get their heads around.

      Colonial? Really? Are the Free Libya Forces colonialists, too? How about the diplomatic and political influence the US used to help grease Mubarak’s exit – was that colonialist, too?

      In the aftermath of the American response to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, projecting a great power, realist narrative onto the actions of this administration is just an exercise in avoiding tough questions.

  6. I admire your attempt to cast a critical and rational eye upon this war in Libya, but I think you are avoiding the main point.

    There has been no attempt to help the people and government create a truce and negotiate among themselves a non-violent solution to their problem, whatever it may be. Instead we have chosen to intervene on one side (of how many sides available, we are not told) of the situation and pursue a tactic of removing Col Gadaffy and his government by force.

    We, the people of the United States, have not been told who we are supporting, why we are supporting them, or what this faction plans to do with the country if the gain control. I, for one, am VERY suspicious of this decision.

    The much more appropriate action would have been to help create a cease fire and support and enable the whole nation of Libya to make a peaceful negotiation and a political process to achieve their own best interests in their own way.

    • Clinton tried that with Sierra Leone – forcing the government to sit down and negotiate with that monster Foday Sankoh. It was a miserable failure, and only served to give the most evil forces in that region more time to slaughter and consolidate their power.

      You can’t solve every problem by talking it out.

  7. Prof. Cole, I would like to point to some issues with your article as you rightly point out that only the UNSC can authorize use of force. This leaves all the members of the UNSC to conduct crimes against humanity (e.g. US/UK in Iraq, China in Tibet..etc.) without impunity. You go on to say therefore it is ‘desirable’ to add more members such as India and as a result we have to add Pakistan (how about India because we have added CHINA). I think it is not only desirable, but rather IMPERATIVE if the UNSC is to regain any credibility.

    You also support the addition of Pakistan on the basis that we need to have a Muslim country on the UNSC. If we start making additions based on religious grounds, then I think we need to add Israel (Jewish), Nepal (Hindu) etc. The point is that basing it on religion can get very silly very soon.

    Finally, I think the ‘Crimes against humanity’ rationale is quite vague and has so far been used by West against non western countries, otherwise we would have taken Israel to task a long ago, a la Lebanon and Gaza, or as mentioned above USA, UK, China, Russia etc. Other mechanisms are needed!!

    • You’d have to get all five to agree to commit a crime against humanity, which would be unusual.

      You seem reluctant to acknowledge crimes against humanity in the global South. Cambodia, Congo, Rwanda, etc. Obviously Europeans pioneered industrialized mass murder, but it isn’t ethnic. Everyone can do it with the right organization and equipment. The UN was founded to prevent it everywhere.

      • I do not get your first response; on the contrary because you cannot get all five (since at-least one of them is committing the crime against humanity) to agree to take action any of the permanent member of the UNSC is assured of NO UNSC or UN action.

        And no I am not reluctant on your second point, I only point out the fact that it is only used against the poorer and underprivileged and often where the motivation of the UNSC permanent members is far from purely humanitarian. I would prefer that actions under this portion of the charter be by a 2/3 vote of the General Assembly, which is far more democratic. This way we may have had action against US and UK for Iraq related atrocities.

      • Asians were quite adept at mass murder long before then and didn’t require industrialization to carry it out.

  8. Aren’t 4 and 6 the same? ‘Cept 6 is clearer/more explanatory?

  9. Fine piece that avoids hindsight. More of a wish list. Thank you for your brilliant blog.

    Plain English is always a bonus and I am startled by your use of ‘eventuating’.

    What’s happened to happening?

  10. Compare what Egyptians and Tunisians have accomplished themselves to what Western military intervention has accomplished in Iraq, and Afghanistan.

    At best, the west will delegitimize the Libyan rebellion and create a Libyan Hamid Karzai!

    • What the west is doing in Libya is far more similar to the cases of Egypt and Tunisia than to Iraq and Afghanistan.

      In Iraq, the United States took over the country, without any involvement of local forces, governed it for a time, and then attempted to set up a client state. We tried to be the driver of events. We decided to oust the dictator, our military forces did the fighting, we occupied and government the country, and we (tried to) control the political aftermath.

      In Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya, the People in each of those countries rose up against the dictators and did the hard work of ousting them by themselves. We played only a supporting role, using the tools available to urge the dictator to leave power, and to limit his ability to crush the uprisings by force.

      To lump in Libya with Iraq and Afghanistan is to say that the only important question is whether western militaries were involved, and that’s the least important question. The US has used non-military means to conduct imperialist actions, and has used military means for actions that have no connection whatsoever to empire-building. Until Khadaffy unleashed his military against the protesters, we were pursuing the same policies towards Libya that we pursued towards Egypt and Tunisia. That the situation became militarized was a consequence of Khadaffy’s actions and the response of the rebels to being slaughtered.

  11. The US strategy is to send Qaddafi a carrot message and stick message.

    Carrot message (in private): If you leave Libya you keep your gold and your life.

    Stick message: If you do not leave Libya we eventually will find you and kill you.

    The problem is that Qaddafi has spent decades avoiding assasination attempts, is very skilled at being anywhere but the wrong place at the wrong time and may actually enjoy the game.

    He may wery well win this.

  12. #9 giving one step exile and extradition waivers is incompatible with the purpose of the UNSC decision and NATO’s intervention. Qaddafi and his family must not get a reward for crimes against his people. Libyans will be the first ones to question this once a new government is set up. They would want justice and restitution of funds stolen by the Qaddafis. Qaddafi must face criminal charges.
    The idea of adding more members to the UNSC is asinine. The more nations you add the greater the stalemate. Adding a Muslim nation is all that’s needed to increase world terrorism and Islamic radicalism. Indonesia, a more democratic and secular nation is a better choice, but tje whole thing smells of Juan Cole’s pro-Islamist bias.
    Brazil has no business in the UNSC. If anything it should be reduced to USA, Russia and China. These three nations have the capability to maintain world security, if any, the best.
    Otherwise, the UNSC could become as impractical, useless and biased as the UN itself.
    Pretty soon South Africa would have to be accepted because you need an African nation, Australia because it is a continent by itself, Mexico because Brazil is too South, and on…

  13. And finally – answer me this if you will:_

    1. How do you save human lives by bombing a metropolitan area where inevitably large nubmers of civilians are going to be killed or maimed?

    2. Is it not true that the CIA is funding the so-called rebels – and the US has willfully turned its back on the AU’s proposals. So it is only the imperial masters who are able to determine what is best for Africa with NATO bombs?

    3. “Humanitarian bombing” is the kind of Orwellian conrtrivances that I would expect professors for respected institutions of higher learning – not to be duped by.

    Nuff said.

    Over to you Prof.

    • Hi, Courtenay. NATO has avoided bombing civilian areas in cities so much that it left much of Misrata, Zintan and other cities unprotected against Qaddafi’s tank barrages for *weeks*. Your premise is incorrect. There has been very little killing of civilians by NATO bombardments, whereas the big loss of life has come from Qaddafi brigades shelling noncombatants in cities.

      The TNC seems broke and if anyone is giving it money, it isn’t very much. Since they can export some petroleum, its indigenous sales would dwarf any funding from other sources, anyway. In the past few years the West has given Qaddafi access to world markets that have brought him billions, so it is not as though he is pure as the driven snow in this regard.

      The AU cannot over-rule both the Arab League and the UNSC, and besides which South Africa and others are backing away from Qaddafi as we speak.

      Courtenay, if you will accept for a moment that Qaddafi’s armored divisions did in fact come at the civilian population of Misrata from three directions and heavily bombard its downtown, its apartment buildings, and its port, as well as showering them with cluster bombs, I’d just like to ask you how you would practically protect that city full of noncombatants from the Qaddafi brigades? The is still going on as we speak. How would you stop it?

      • Wrong about Africa. Read the African press (including expat New African) to see how they interpret Gadhafi & Gbagbo in the same light – regime change by a neo-colonial French empire in its own interests & thus have absolutely no trust in the UN for its shameful role supporting colonialism & its successors, from Katanga /Congo to Cote d’Ivore & Libya.

        Arabs have long been persecutors in Black Africa & when aligned with colonial powers — Anglo-Egyptian Sudan — their actions continue the subordination & subversion of Black African emergence from 500 years of exploitation.

    • Were it your home town being shelled as your family huddled in the basement, I doubt you would have the slightest difficulty understanding how the bombing of the tanks shelling you would save human lives.

      To some people, no one in Africa ever dies unless they’re killed by an American or European.

  14. I don’t think supporting the Transnational Council is the way to go anyway:
    link to

    Wouldn’t travel sanctions and the like against Qaddafi be less damaging. I agree with Pragmatic realist

    • The reality is, where have sanctions ever actually been decisive in overthrowing a government? They obviously failed against Saddam Hussein. The US in many regions can impose unilateral sanctions on countries that cause them great harm, but Hanoi and Havana still stand. The apartheid regime in South Africa gave in, but it was facing the real possibility of a mass Marxist uprising by the black majority.

      It goes all the way to the sactions against Japan for its imperial rampage in 1940-41. The White House was restrained by the military’s fear (shared by Britain) that serious sanctions would be viewed by Japan’s fascists as an existential threat justifying an attack that neither the US or UK could afford. But the half-hearted sanctions were viewed by the fascists as an existential threat anyway.

      Until the antiwar movement accepts that our current concept of sanctions is almost completely useless and needs to be replaced, we’ve got no credibility telling the public that there are alternatives to war.

      • your analysis of the sanctions used against Japan is flawed and your contention that sanctions are “almost completely useless” is flatly incorrect and bordering on silly.

    • sometimes travel sanctions fall a tad short of intimidating folks avidly using artillery bombardment as a tool to enforce political compliance.

  15. Dear Prof. Cole,

    There seems to be a contradiction in your positions. On the one hand, you say that the purpose of intervention is to protect civilians (i.e. not overthrow Qaddafi per se, a goal which would violate international law). On the other hand, you complain that NATO has not coordinated well with the rebels, whose goal is nothing short of overthrowing the Libyan government. Which is it? Is this war intended to overthrow the government of a sovereign nation, or is it intended to protect civilians?

    Also, if protecting civilians is the point, why do you not urge the parties to enter into negotiations in order to establish peace? I have consistently gotten the sense that you don’t want peace unless Qaddafi is overthrown, and it doesn’t matter how long the war lasts, how many people die, how many people are displaced, and how many cities are destroyed, as long as that political end is achieved.


    • Hi, Behnam. Since Qaddafi and his special forces, armored divisions and mercenaries has been assiduously trying to kill people, including noncombatants, in the cities not under his control– with horrible and persistent bombardments of cities such as Misrata, Zintan, Yefren, etc., then protecting the population would necessarily involve bombing those attacking forces. They are doing something illegal in international law and are war criminals, and the UNSC has rightly asked that they be stopped. But stopping them effectively would require coordinating with the Free Libya forces that are essentially urban popular militias trying to defend the people of the cities under attack.

      Your suggestion that Qaddafi would have negotiated in good faith with Misrata while he was showering cluster bombs on its civilians is hard for me to take seriously. Qaddafi is a mass murderer. You might as well volunteer to spend the night in a cell with Hannibal Lector. It is not that I want him overthrown as a political matter. It is that he has behaved in ways that make it clear that he is the central problem and nothing will improve until he is gone. In other words it is the opposite of what you allege– the cities will go on being bombarded by his forces as long as he is there– the impetus is not coming from others.

      If Qaddafi had allowed people in Misrata peacefully to assemble, as is their right, instead of training tank turrets on them, there would be no war.

      • In practice, governments have the right to put down uprisings, and even massacre civilians. They do it all the time. What is striking in Libya is that Gadafi seems to have undertaken the physical destruction of most of its cities, which gets into a much deeper level of deprivation from which recovery may not be possible. Cities are civilization.

        This is a special problem of oil countries, because nowhere else in the world is the population so much less valuable than the riches underneath their feet. Governments normally are financed by the population. But at the extreme level of oil to population that Libya has, rulers have no logical reason not to completely eliminate a rebellious citizenry and replace it with more cooperative immigrants. The oil is all that is necessary to rule. This is not true for Syria, and while it is true in Bahrain, the fact that everyone lives in the capital makes it impractical for its Saudi occupiers to carry out extermination. However, there are other countries in the region that might take heed of what Gadafi is and is not able to get away with.

        • Actually it is not true that all governments have the right to put down dissident movements. People have a right to dissent and to assemble peacefully. Governments that systematically attack their populations for doing so are committing crimes against humanity. Their leaders can be tried at the Hague. And if the United Nations Security Council tells a government to cut it out, and the government continues to kill, the UNSC has the authority to remove that government from power. All this is inherent in the various treaties and instruments signed as treaty obligations by UN members. I am continually amazed at how many contemporary thinkers are stuck in the Peace of Westphalia mode concerning absolute national sovereignty and seem unaware of the United Nations reformation of the mid-20th century and after.

      • Thank you for the reply, Prof. Cole. I certainly don’t assume that Qaddafi is a moral person (nor do I make that assumption about many other heads of state), but I do assume that self-interest and the demands of realpolitik could make amoral leaders reach a peace agreement. Now that so much force is being used against the Libyan government, it stands to reason that there is considerable leverage against Qaddafi, enough that could make him take an interest in a negotiated peace settlement revolving around expanded civil rights, power-sharing, or perhaps federalism, provided he retains some power. The negotiated peace could be monitored by peacekeeping forces. This way, NATO, instead of pouring death on people from above, would actually be helping save lives.

  16. (This is not a reply, but a correction of the link and a remark.)

    P.S. one
    Sorry Juan,

    here is the link to the original publication:

    link to

    P.S. two
    At the bottom of your blogpage:

    All materials © (2010)

    I guess by now it could be:

    All materials © (2011)


  17. Setting aside for the moment a question that really ought not to be set aside, even for the sake of argument on other points — whether NATO’s actions in Libya go quite far beyond what was authorized under UNSC Resolution 1973 — US involvement in the Libya War certainly can be distinguished from Iraq in that the UN authorized it (or at least something remotely resembling it: I just can’t seem to set aside that other question). On the other hand, Iraq at least had the explicit blessing of Congress; Libya does not. One can quibble about whether Congress really authorized Bush to invade Iraq without coming back again for specific permission (though I dislike Bush, I feel he made it quite clear to Congress that it would have one and only one chance to object), but at least Bush asked.

    So, in a nutshell:

    1. In Iraq, the US’ participation was approved by our own leaders, but not by foreign countries.

    2. In Libya, the US’ participation was approved by foreign countries, but not by our own leaders.

    Neither combination is ideal. Which is better?

  18. If Qaddafi had allowed people in Misrata peacefully to assemble, as is their right, instead of training tank turrets on them, there would be no war.

    Ditto Assad.

  19. Professor:

    You omitted what should have been mistake number one: the failure of the U.S. to take the lead in this operation. Nato has shown an embarrassing failure at effective military operations. To paraphrase the old “by jingo” line, they apparently don’t have the men, the ships or the money too. We may not either, but we do have the technology to fight this.

    Mistake number two: mission creep from day one. Only the naive believed that this war was to put a temporary force barrier around a few civilian areas. All that promised is what it in fact it has delivered: “days not weeks’ has turned into months. Without decapitating Qaddafi, this war will go on and on.

    Mistake number three: if we didn’t have the sanction to do number 2, then initiating this war was an error. As you know, in warfare, time = death. The longer this baby drags on, the uglier it becomes.

    Mistake number four, which you have noted, deserves an additional comment. Whether one likes it or not (I’m probably one of the few on the right that likes it) the War Powers Resolution was one of great liberal foreign policy achievements of the post-Vietnam era. Obama is trashing it, and for no good reason. The longer he waits, the messier for him it will become. As a wing nut, perhaps I’m not overly troubled by the opportunity it presents for the loyal opposition, but as an American, I’m appalled.

    Mistake number five: we–the Nato coalition–have lacked transparency. If we weren’t candid about our objectives from the get-go, the war increasingly looks like its being waged “for something else.” In an earlier column, you dismissed the idea that the Euros were fighting for oil, and I agree. However, public skepticism has been rising, and it’s being fed by the lack of transparency. Particularly in this country (other than Farrakhan) Qadaffi doesn’t have any constituency, but Obama’s lack of candor in articulating and defending (and continuing to articulate and defend) the war’s objectives does nothing but invite dissent. This is especially true in the midst of a very cruel recession.

    Mistake number six: over the years, you’ve been very articulate about our lack of post-invasion planning in Iraq and in sketching the consequences of that particular piece of incompetence. What about Libya? I’ve heard nothing other than repeated assertions (even by supporters of this war) that we don’t know who the rebels are or what type of regime will follow.

    Mistake number seven: in the midst of “Arab Spring,” or whatever the metaphor de jure amy be, relying on the Arab League for support was fantasy from the start. There are few regimes secure enough domestically to allow themselves to be depicted as teaming up with ex-colonial regimes to take down Libya.

    • “days not weeks’ has turned into months

      I keep seeing this same misinformation being repeated.

      The statement Obama made was that leadership of the operation would be handed over from American control to NATO control in “days not weeks,” and that’s exactly what happened.

      • Transferred American control to Nato? You mean, we’ve been using a Nato spokesperson to announce what American drones, cruise missiles, satellite recon and CIA ground spotters are doing? Nato runs this war? Or is the war being run by U.S. carrier task force in the Med?

        We were supposed to have washed our hands of this in “days not weeks.” But now we’re dirtier than ever. Personally, that might not be the worst thing in the world. Qadaffi should have been whacked after Lockerbie. But I wonder Joe, how do you win a war with no coherent war aims?

        If I were to limit your knowledge of Libya to the public declarations from Hillary, Obama, Sarkozy and an assortment of Nato also-rans, and then asked you to square what they’ve said with what’s actually on the ground, could you do it?

        Look, Joe, only the public announcements were handed off to Nato. It’s still our war.

  20. The UN attempt to forbid unilateral aggresive war may be our best hope. But in evaluating our international system, let’s look at the 1991 Gulf War. It was legal. 88,500 tons of bombs dropped. 100,000 Iraqi soldiers killed. Was it a shining success? Had all the alternatives to this mass killing been exhausted? In the wake of this legal war came much anti-American terrorism, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War. The UN does many good things, but the consequences of it’s mistakes can be horrible.

  21. I also find it incredible that Qaddafi could roll tanks across the open desert and then concertedly shell noncombatants in cities without it being possible to intervene aerially. If I heard the NATO spokeswoman correctly. there have been 5 000 attack sorties and 20 000 missiles fired in open desert under clear skies by the world’s most technologically advanced air forces over nearly three months.

    That is leaving a credibility gap between claims and common sense. If the tanks are there, why can’t they be destroyed?

    There are credibility gaps all over this war. How long does it take to destroy command and control centres in a nation of 4 million people? Why do Gaddafi’s forces still have the morale and capability to attack after three months of aerial attack? How much actual fighting are the rebels doing and how does it compare with 5 000 aerial strikes?

    If Professor Cole could bridge these gaps, perhaps more of us would feel better about this war.

    • Well there isn’t any doubt about the rolling of the tanks or whether they are there. There is lots of footage of them!

      My guess is that Britain, France, Norway and Denmark don’t have as many smart munitions as the US or don’t have a good way to set up the targets. On old soldier who’d been at Guam asked me one time what you get if you bomb a tank and miss. What? I said. A scratched tank, he replied.

  22. As I am sure you are aware, there are two types of UNSC members. The five permanent members have veto rights which the elected 15 do not have and can block any resolution.

    Are you proposing veto rights for new members such as India, Nigeria and Pakistan? That would make international cooperation on these matters more difficult.

    • Yes, I am proposing India, Pakistan and (for example) Nigeria for permanent membership. I’d also take away the absolute veto. As for making things more difficult, well it just isn’t right for the world to be run by 4 European-heritage nations ringing the arctic plus one Asian giant. If they can’t get anything done, then they’ll have to change the way they work. But it isn’t an argument against greater inclusivity that only an old boys club can get the job accomplished.

  23. Thanks for a yet another illuminating article. Even if I do not always agree with your conclusions, I would never doubt the honesty, sincerity and the reliability of the sources used, which is a vast improvement on just about everything else.
    I cannot but conclude that it is a graet pity that the Libyans have required external assistance, as there are too many interested parties wanting to get their foot in the door. Cameron’s first visit to the post-“spring” Middle East was with a bevvy of arms dealers. Talk about true to type. Thank you Cameron – despite his name he has become an Anglo Saxon negative stereotype extraordinaire. As a Scot let me assure the rest of the world we / they are not all like him (or Blair). Now we are hearing in the UK how much this Libyan intervention is going to cost – in every tabloid – suspiciously like the an opening salvo on how we intend to get it back. The money we spend has gone to the crony complex and the money we recoup – no prizes for guessing where that will go. It’s the new White Man’s Burden. The sacrifices we all have to make for those heroic billionaires.
    Nonetheless I shall be recommending your blog to my Libyan doctor friends who have been repeatedly flying out to provide medical help in Benghazi and Tunisia. Maybe they can make some contribution here as well.

  24. Though many journalists and commenters routinely refer to the frozen assets as “Gaddafi assets,” careful observers will note that official pronouncements, including those from our own State Department, nearly always refer to them as “Gaddafi regime assets” or even, on rare occasions, as “Libyan government assets.”

    This may strike the casual observer as a pointless distinction, but it is not. Official US government pronouncements do not treat the frozen assets as the equivalent of Moammar Gaddafi’s personal piggy bank that may be handed over to the rebels simply because many people in this country think they’d be better leaders and they’ve asked for our help. Instead, they correctly recognize them as assets of the Libyan government, which cannot be seized merely because we no longer approve of that government. That is why the rebels are finding it so difficult to get any of them released, or pledged as collateral for loans.

    To simply declare that the current Libyan government — like them or not — has “lost legitimacy” and that, therefore, we may hand billions of dollars in Libyan government assets to some group we feel would run Libya in a way that we and its people would like better makes it difficult to argue that Libya — or any other country, for that matter — may not do exactly the same to us.

    How difficult would it be, do you suppose, for quite a number of countries around the world to declare (or have declared in the past) that the US government has “lost legitimacy” because, say, National Guard troops had shot students at Kent State, or because Bush had stolen the 2000 election, or because Obama is bombing civilians in other countries without asking for Congressional permission, or for any one of dozens of other reasons, and thereupon seize US assets in that country?

    • There is no evidence of any real distinction between Qaddafi’s personal money and the state’s.

      When Qaddafi defied the UNSC order to stop attacking his people, and when the US joined a multi-national, UN-authorized attempt to protect those people from his thugs, it was time to expropriate his sons’ Ferrari money and give it to the people. Agreed that there must be some framework in international and US law for this action, but I don’t think it would be so hard.

      • Dr. Cole wrote:

        “There is no evidence of any real distinction between Qaddafi’s personal money and the state’s. When Qaddafi defied the UNSC order to stop attacking his people, and when the US joined a multi-national, UN-authorized attempt to protect those people from his thugs, it was time to expropriate his sons’ Ferrari money and give it to the people.”

        Let’s assume for the sake of argument that assets frozen in New York have not been conclusively shown to be Libyan government assets, even though that is what the Libyan government claims they are and that is what multinational financial corporations such as Goldman Sachs have treated them as being. Is that good enough to justify seizing those assets — that they are, in effect, “guilty until proven innocent?” That, unless the Libyan government can show that those assets were not the source of funds for a Ferrari bought by one of Moammar Gaddafi’s sons, the $35 billion frozen by the US may simply be taken?

        Or is the burden on those who would seize the assets? Can the US government conclusively establish that no US government assets have been used for improper purpose? If not, may any foreign government simply seize US government assets and turn them over to some opponent of the US government who claims to be representing the US people?

        With all due respect, and much is due, this view does not strike me as a fully developed view of how the international banking system works or ought to work.

        Am I not fairly describing your views on this?

        • I am saying the Qaddafi regime is an outlaw regime because it has defied the clear demands on it of the UNSC and has committed systematic crimes against humanity. The UNSC has imposed financial sanctions on North Korea for defying it and even opened N. Korean boats to inspection by UNO member nations on the high seas, an apparent violation of the law of the sea; except, defying the UNSC causes a country t o be treated like an outlaw.

  25. Pakistan, Nigeria? Juan your problem is you don’t understand what the UNSC is all about. Small nations have already anarchized the UN. That’s the little boys club. But the Big Boys club is no democracy.
    The SC is the place where WWIII can be avoided. This is the “avoidance” center. There’s no room for discussion and arguments. A veto is usually the weapon that stops a major conflagration.
    More voters only complicate matters and eliminating the veto would only bring chaos.
    If every country is supposed to be equal there should be only one membership fee equal to all. US is not just a big boy, but the financier.
    I believe that the UNSC should only be the three big ones. European powers ought to be sent to minion land.

  26. Why did Obama not seek Congressional support for the Libyan operation? Was it not so that there was enough support to get a resolution authorizing military strikes through?

    It is quite clear that Obama takes a very expansive view of Presidential war making powers despite his effort to claim otherwise in 2008. This problem seems to be powerful self inflicting blow on the administration and will likely cause it future problems with foreign policy.

    A side note: The Libyan operation seems to be increasing support for a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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