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.

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

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

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

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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.

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