Libya and Iraq: A Stop and Think Moment

10/24/2011 11:26 am ET | Updated Dec 24, 2011
  • Robert J. Spitzer Distinguished Service Professor and Chair, Political Science, SUNY Cortland; author of 15 books

The death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, followed within a day by Pres. Obama's announcement that U.S. forces will be gone from Iraq by December, should be a stop-and-pause moment for all Americans. In both cases, two brutal dictatorships came to an end. But the similarities end there -- especially for America.

1. Political change is best when it comes from within, and worst when imposed from without. These nations' "tale of the tape" is starkly different, if well known. Iraq: eight years, a trillion dollars, 4,400 U.S. soldiers killed, over 30,000 wounded, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead. Libya: seven months, a billion dollars, no Americans killed or wounded, perhaps 30,000 Libyans killed. The fundamental difference lies in the fact that the U.S. and NATO provided key support at a critical moment to a genuine indigenous mass uprising in Libya, whereas the Iraq invasion was about American designs on Iraq that were oblivious to realities on the ground.

2. Multilateralism is better than unilateralism. Bush repeatedly referred to forces fighting in Iraq as "coalition forces," but it was a fig leaf; except for the British, other nations' contributions were token. The Bush administration had decided early on to invade Iraq, regardless of world opinion or allied involvement. Sadly, the second Pres. Bush rejected the lesson of his father, who constructed a genuine multilateral coalition to fight the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. Meaningful allied support not only shares the burden, but enhances an action's legitimacy. And if the U.S. cannot rally international support for military action, maybe it should rethink the wisdom of the action.

3. Don't over-analyze so-called "new doctrines." Pundits are proclaiming the Obama administration's "leading from behind" strategy as the "new American way of war." Maybe it is; more likely, though, it's a pragmatic reaction to Bush-era overreach, especially in Iraq, and to tightened fiscal realities. Yes, it is a change welcomed by most, but the circumstances in Libya that opened the door to U.S. and NATO involvement are not likely to reappear with any frequency. Shrewd future foreign policy judgments will focus more on measured responses calibrated to be sensitive to particular circumstances around the world, not decisions dictated by some uber-strategy.

4. Libya was a political and policy victory for Obama; Iraq became Bush's millstone. Even though many Republicans criticized, or at best grudgingly praised, Obama's actions, it is another foreign policy success for Obama that shores up his political credentials and removes further from Republican reach their traditional claim to foreign policy as their strong suit. Note, for example, Rick Perry's ham-handed comment that his own military background would make him a better commander-in-chief than Obama -- a charge that landed with a thud. Bin Laden is gone; so is Gaddafi. Enough said.

5. Look out for unintended consequences. The full effects of regime changes in Libya and Iraq won't be clear for years. If new dictators emerge, or terrorism gets a boost, today's victories may seem ephemeral, if not illusory, in the light of history.

6. The biggest loser coming out of Libya was the U.S. Constitution. Unstinting praise for the Obama administration's deft handling of Libya cannot paste over the fact that in the process, Obama has blown a new hole in the War Powers Resolution. Passed in 1973, the law requires presidents to receive prior authorization from Congress before engaging in military actions abroad. No such authorization was provided. Obama's not the first president to act without such authorization, but the precedent is nevertheless troubling. In addition, Obama failed to adhere to the Act's deadline, which requires presidents to withdraw troops from "hostilities" 60 days after they are introduced, unless Congress votes to extend this period for an additional 30 days or acts in some other manner to authorize a continued military presence. Congress took no such actions. Obama is the first president to simply ignore this requirement.

It is supremely ironic, and in equal measure troubling, that congressional Republicans who pillory Obama at every turn could not muster the votes in even one house to criticize Obama for failing to abide by the law. It reflects not only Congress's failure as an institution, but the state of war powers in contemporary America, where Congress lacks the stomach, or will, to assert its proper constitutional role. For his part, Bush obtained the necessary congressional OK to invade Iraq months before, even though he lied to the country about the justifications. The one area where Bush's action was grounded in law in comparison with Obama will likely be the least remembered.