“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” said Obama in December 2007. Since Libya does not present such a threat to the United States, one wonders how Obama squares his previous understanding of the Constitution with this military undertaking.
There is also a second set of lessons from the Iraq war relating to the costs and benefits of military action that should raise serious concerns about the White House’s decision.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.
As we learned or should have learned from the Iraq war, the use of military force can have all kinds of unintended consequences, especially in places we do not understand. The international coalition says it is going to war to prevent civilian casualties. But even with the most prudential use of military force, it’s not clear that we will be able to avoid civilian casualties by our own hands, as we see from our drone strikes within Pakistan.
And as civilian casualties mount, we may see this turn into a story of American overreach. Already we see the limits of the Arab League’s support, as it condemned the widespread bombing that came in the first day or two of the intervention. Until now, the democratic awakening has opened up the Arab world’s future because it has been undertaken by Arab peoples, who now believe they have control over their own destiny. The Libyan intervention risks changing that narrative.
Then there is the question of where this will all end. If anything, mission creep seems to be an inevitable feature of this kind of American military action. While the language of the U.N. resolution forbids “foreign occupation,” what will we do when chaos and small-scale humanitarian crises begin to occur across Libya?
Indeed, there is a troubling dimension to this intervention in that it reflects a mindset that associates U.S. foreign policy, whether alone or part of an allied, multilateral force, with heroic crusades to bring down the bad guys. It is that mindset that has done so much damage in the Middle East over the years and that has saddled us with the costly burdens of two ongoing wars.
The democratic awakening in the Arab world has presented the United States with an opportunity to put its past support for autocratic governments and repressive military and security apparatuses behind it. It offers this country a chance to align our interests with democratic change and economic progress. It would be a tragedy if the United States allowed the intervention in Libya to distract us from these difficult and important challenges. The most productive role for America in the Middle East — especially over the long-term — should primarily diplomatic and economic, rather than military.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation. She writes a weekly online column for The Post.