Libya and America's commitment problem

Staff Sgt Brendan Stephens/US Army

An Egyptian woman and two children sleep aboard a U.S. Air Force C-130J Super Hercules aircraft during a flight from Djerba Zarzis International Airport in Tunisia to Cairo, Egypt, Mar. 9, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • If #Qaddafi is left in power, he'll continue the slaughter we intervened to prevent @JonahNRO

    Tweet This

  • If America pulls out of #Libya without a real victory, allies will start to question: Does America have any resolve?

    Tweet This

  • GOP drifting towards '#isolationism'? Regardless if that helps the #campaign, it won't help the country @JonahNRO

    Tweet This

Suddenly and sadly, the Libyan war may be one of the most consequential adventures in recent American history.

Libya's not important because it is vital to our national security. Nor is it a particularly significant country. It's important solely because the Washington establishment, led by President Obama, made it important.

If you set out to take Vienna, Napoleon advised, take Vienna. Similarly, if you invest America's and NATO's prestige in an obstreperous North African backwater, you'd better recoup a worthwhile return on that investment.

If Moammar Kadafi is left in power, he will pick up where he left off and finish the slaughter we said we started this war to prevent, and he'll likely return to his international terrorist ways.

The spectacle of a U.S.-NATO humiliation will echo around the region and the world. Other tyrants--like Syria's Bashar Assad, already busy slaughtering his people--will reasonably conclude that the West's bark is worse than its bite.

And then there are our friends. If America pulls out without something like real victory (i.e., Kadafi in a bag), NATO could be dealt a mortal blow. Our allies, who've spent the last decade fighting alongside us in Afghanistan and Iraq, will wonder if America's resolve will always melt so quickly when she's not giving the orders.

But staying the course is not so attractive either. Obama insists that the War Powers Act doesn't apply to Libya because the bombing campaign and drone attacks don't rise to the level of "hostilities." No one really believes this nonsense. And so Obama has managed to do what no Republican president ever could: destroy the War Powers Act.

"But no matter who is pushing it, premature withdrawal spells disaster for the country and for Obama's legacy." -- Jonah Goldberg

In and of itself that might be a good thing, given that the act, which curtails the commander in chief's power, is a constitutional affront. But nothing in this partisan atmosphere happens in isolation. In a riot of irresponsibility and hypocrisy, Republicans are racing to embrace a law they've long reviled just so they can, accurately, charge Obama with irresponsibility and hypocrisy.

This climate of dysfunction has Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wagging their fingers at their own party for succumbing to "isolationism." Graham says Congress should "shut up" about Libya.

McCain and Graham are honorable men, but they wildly overestimate their moral authority and the intellectual power of their arguments. The desire to end prematurely the mess in Libya--or even in Afghanistan--may be wrongheaded, ill-advised or shortsighted, but there's little evidence it stems from anything that could be meaningfully called isolationism or a resurgence of the "Pat Buchanan wing of the Republican Party," as McCain calls it.

Buchanan, by the way, left the party more than a decade ago, leaving behind not a wing but a feather.

If anything, it's McCain and Graham who are nurturing a rebirth of isolationism by going for the easy insult. Isolationism is an actual doctrine, with a rich and complicated intellectual history on the left and the right. It is not an adjective that can be accurately applied to anyone who disagrees with a specific course of action or who is simply weary of a decade of war. But, if wanting to be done with Libya and Afghanistan is now the measure of what isolationism means, then a lot of Americans are going to say, "Hey, that sounds pretty good to me."

The GOP's drift to non-interventionism might help Obama in 2012, as Graham and some conservative strategists believe, or it might not. But no matter who is pushing it, premature withdrawal spells disaster for the country and for Obama's legacy.

Of course, McCain and Graham wouldn't need to leap into the breach if Obama were doing his job. It would have been easy for him to seek authorization from Congress under the War Powers Act and win support from both parties.

Alas, he's in campaign mode now, convinced that talking about foreign policy and war is a political loser for him. He'd rather do nothing and keep his fingers crossed and hope for a lucky missile strike, creating a dangerous leadership vacuum at home and abroad in the process.

We refer to the straw that breaks the camel's back for a reason. We don't expect a straw to break a camel's back. You wouldn't expect Libya to break Washington's back either. But we could be heading in that direction.

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Jonah
Goldberg

  •  


    A bestselling author and columnist, Jonah Goldberg's nationally syndicated column appears regularly in scores of newspapers across the United States. He is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a member of the board of contributors to USA Today, a contributor to Fox News, a contributing editor to National Review, and the founding editor of National Review Online. He was named by the Atlantic magazine as one of the top 50 political commentators in America. In 2011 he was named the Robert J. Novak Journalist of the Year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He has written on politics, media, and culture for a wide variety of publications and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. Prior to joining National Review, he was a founding producer for Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg on PBS and wrote and produced several other PBS documentaries. He is the recipient of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Tyranny of Clichés (Sentinel HC, 2012) and Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2008).  At AEI, Mr. Goldberg writes about political and cultural issues for American.com and the Enterprise Blog.

    Follow Jonah Goldberg on Twitter.


  • Phone: 202-862-7165
    Email: jonah.goldberg@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The money in banking: Comparing salaries of bank and bank regulatory employees
image What Obama should say about China in Japan
image A key to college success: Involved dads
image China takes the fight to space
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.