BU Today

In the World

Andrew Bacevich on War in Libya

CAS prof sees confusion in president’s stated goals


A boy at an antigovernment protest in Benghazi, Libya, a rebel stronghold against Muammar el-Qaddafi's regime. Photo by Flickr contributor B. R. Q. News Network

With President Obama defending his Libya intervention in a nationally televised speech earlier this week, Andrew Bacevich remains unconvinced that we’ve picked the right fight.

In his speech, Obama said he lent American air power to the anti-Qaddafi coalition and rebels to avert “violence on a horrific scale,” as the regime threatened to slaughter civilians in the city of Benghazi. The president also cited U.N. approval for the intervention (which Bacevich applauds) and a promised handoff to other nations (NATO is enforcing a no-flight zone). He foreswore using U.S. ground troops in an effort to topple Qaddafi, saying the United States can’t afford a costly, regime-changing morass à la Iraq. To critics who charge he should have sought congressional approval, he countered that consulting with legislative leaders sufficed for a limited military operation.

A lecture commitment prevented Bacevich, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and a former West Point–educated Army colonel, from watching the speech, but based on media coverage, he says the president left unanswered questions about the mission. Bacevich’s 2010 book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War calls for the United States to intervene abroad militarily only in self-defense and when its vital interests are threatened. He also calls on Europeans to assume more responsibility for global peacekeeping. Obama says that’s precisely what the Libyan operation requires, yet “if you measure it in terms of sorties,” Bacevich says, “we’re flying, I think, significantly more than half of them.”

BU Today spoke with Bacevich after Obama’s speech.

BU Today: Did President Obama’s speech assuage your concerns?

Bacevich: No. My concerns would be twofold. First, the president ordered this intervention without authorization of Congress. In a war that was by no means a necessary war, I believe it’s important to fulfill the constitutional requirement that says the legislative branch decides when we go to war. Nor do I accept the euphemisms for “war” that the administration has been using. Previous administrations have routinely claimed wide authority when it comes to the use of force. My position would be that in the wake of the Cold War, it is mistaken to accept these precedents.

The second concern has to do with confusion over purpose. On the one hand, the president defends his position as necessary to protect civilians, the humanitarian rationale. On the other hand, the president has said that Qaddafi must go, that the aim is regime change. They are attacking targets that make U.S. and allied airpower an adjunct of the rebel forces. That may or may not be a wise course, but it’s incumbent upon the president to make clear our purposes.

The president disavowed military regime change. Supposedly, the administration is increasing diplomatic efforts to remove Qaddafi, and we’re degrading his military as inducement.

It’s a wonderful strategy if it works. Perhaps it will. The circumstances are fraught with uncertainty. If we can persuade Qaddafi to skedaddle, this could end quickly and successfully. If Qaddafi continues to fight, then what? I understand the president doesn’t want to put all his cards down for Mr. Qaddafi to read, but in a domestic context, he does have an obligation to put his cards down so that we understand what’s going on. It’s unfair to expect the president to be able to say this is going to be over within a week or 10 days or 2 months, because we can’t know. My point is he needs to be clear on what our purpose is.

The larger point is that the administration is attributing more importance to Libya than it deserves. The big story is the broader uprising among Arab nations and the success of the uprisings in Tunisia and, especially, Egypt. There is big change afoot in the Arab world. We need to reassure Israel that the changes happening are not inconsistent with the safety and security of Israel. We don’t want them to do anything rash. We need to support political change that is liberal and democratic. We can do that rhetorically and in the way we extend economic assistance. We need to express disapproval of change that is undemocratic or anti-Israeli or anti-American.

If, for example, the people of Egypt choose an Islamist government, we are obliged, and it is in our interest, to recognize that government. It doesn’t follow that we have to provide economic and security assistance if this government calls into question the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Some observers have said that some of the Libyan rebels we’re helping have been a source of jihadists to Iraq.

That’s the third point the president has left us in the dark on. Who are we supporting? What do they represent? We don’t know.

You do support, in some cases, humanitarian intervention to prevent slaughter?

I do. I regret that we did not act in Rwanda, the iconic reference point. The question becomes, to what degree was this like Rwanda? I think you can argue it either way. I don’t have access to intelligence sources Obama was able to draw on. As a distant observer, I wouldn’t call it a slam dunk.

Almost necessarily, intervention plunges him into a host of political complications. Congratulations, Mr. President, you have prevented the slaughter you were certain was going to happen. Now what are you going to do?

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


2 Comments on Andrew Bacevich on War in Libya

  • Anonymous on 03.31.2011 at 9:36 am

    Oil versus humanitarian intervention

    Being known as a country that protects human rights is, in fact, a vital interest of the United States. What the Middle East thinks of the US is extremely important at this moment in history. Being known as a nation that intervenes for oil, which is surely a national interest, to keep Americans in energy-wasteful SUVs is not what this Country needs.

  • Anonymous on 03.31.2011 at 3:59 pm

    All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)