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Lying about Libya

  • Libya

Tags War and Foreign PolicyOther Schools of Thought

07/06/2011Ryan McCarl

President Obama and other US officials have repeated over and over that the US-NATO war in Libya is all about "protecting civilians," and that it is limited and defensive in nature. But now that we are more than 90 days into an operation that Obama claimed would last "days, not weeks," it is time to state the obvious: the president has been fundamentally dishonest with Americans about the purpose and scope of the Libya war.

President Obama and his supporters argue that the US-NATO war in Libya was necessary to protect civilians from a hypothetical "genocide" that would supposedly have occurred had events in Libya been permitted to run their course. On this argument's own terms, the war would be defensible only as a limited action aimed at preventing the massacre of civilians. Obama and other leaders are aware of these limits — hence their continued insistence that the intervention in Libya is a short-term operation with purely humanitarian ends.

And yet the stated purpose of the NATO airstrikes in recent weeks has been to target and weaken Libyan president Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's military forces and to provide 24/7, low-risk air support for the offensive operations of Libya's rebels, who hope eventually to advance on Tripoli and overthrow Gaddafi.

Simply put, what was sold to the American public as a humanitarian intervention morphed almost immediately into unreserved support of one side in Libya's civil war and a commitment to overthrowing Libya's existing government.

Savvy politicians know that narratives can change on a dime, and few people will notice any difference. Back in 2003, for example, the Bush administration insisted that it was necessary to invade Iraq in order to stop Iraq from passing its weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to terrorists. When it became increasingly clear that Iraq had no WMDs and no significant connection to al-Qaeda, the narrative shifted: the administration started referring to the Iraq War as a selfless mission aimed at freeing the Iraqi people from a brutal dictatorship and turning Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Arab world.

To decide whether a military action undertaken in our name is prudent and just, we must adopt a skeptical stance toward politicians' stories and rationalizations. We must attempt to see through these to the reality of the situation.

Stories can change, and new excuses can be spun, but once a war is launched there is no predicting the course it will take or the consequences it will have. Wars rarely go according to plan; they set in motion a course of events that no one person or group of people can hope to control.

It was a grave mistake for Congress and the media to sit on the sidelines and give the president the benefit of the doubt — and it was a mistake to allow constitutional safeguards to deteriorate to the point where one man's whims, one man's snap judgment, could send a constitutional democracy to war.

The American political class eagerly embraced the war in Libya before they were quite sure why the war was being fought and what it would entail. Democrats found themselves unable to say no to a war labeled "humanitarian" and promoted by their party's president; Republicans supported the war out of habit, but grumbled that the president was moving too slowly and timidly in his use of military force.

Recent history has not been kind to the United States' carefree overseas adventuring. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, among other places, we have chosen sides in distant conflicts and showered our favored groups with weapons, military training, legitimacy, and cash, only to end up going to war against these same groups just a few years or decades later.

We supported the Mujahideen, which included many future members of the Taliban, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s; we supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s; and we largely normalized relations with and sold weapons to Gaddafi's Libya during the George W. Bush administration.

Are we doomed to watch these cycles repeat themselves again and again? Perhaps the next time an international "crisis" arises and the United States is unsure of what to do about a perceived adversary, we should wait ten years to see if the adversary turns into an ally.

Americans and their elected representatives must begin to adopt a skeptical — rather than eager and gullible — posture toward war. One small step in the right direction would be to restore to Congress its constitutional responsibility for declaring war. This would slow down the process of getting involved in a war and force some minimal level of debate — perhaps allowing cooler heads to prevail.

Not one of the United States' wars since World War II has been formally "declared" by Congress as the Constitution requires. While Congress has authorized many of these wars, it has often done so only after the commencement of military action. The Constitution's drafters gave Congress the power to declare war in the belief that the choice of whether to go to war — a choice that often affects hundreds of thousands of people and changes the course of history — should not rest with one fallible human being.

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