The Endgame in Libya

As I write this post, it looks like the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi is about to fall. Few will shed any tears for him. Gadhafi is a highly oppressive ruler and was for many years a leading supporter of terrorism against the US and others. The Obama Administration deserves credit for helping achieve his overthrow at a fairly minimal cost in American resources.

Nonetheless, there are still serious questions about the legality and wisdom of the administration’s policy. Even a successful outcome doesn’t obviate the fact that the intervention was probably both unconstitutional and a violation of the 1973 War Powers Act. Adherence to the Constitution is not the only important value out there, and I’m willing to admit that there are situations where it can be outweighed by other considerations. Even if the Emancipation Proclamation was unconstitutional, as critics claimed, getting rid of slavery was a good enough justification for violating the Constitution. I am skeptical that getting rid of Gadhafi is in the same class, however – especially since the administration could probably have gotten proper congressional authorization for its actions had it asked for it early on. Moreover, even if this intervention was both moral and effective, it sets a precedent for future unconstitutional uses of force, some of which may be neither.

I also have two prudential concerns about the administration’s policy. First, it is far from clear that the new regime in Libya will be better than the old. The Libyan opposition is a hodgepodge that includes many different elements. Some are liberal democrats, but others are radical Islamists. In a revolutionary situation, ruthless totalitarians are often able to seize power from more liberal groups and establish a regime that turns out to be far worse than the one it replaced. That’s what happened in Russia in 1917, Cuba in 1959, and Iran in 1979, among other examples. It’s far from inevitable that the same thing will happen in Libya. However, the risk exists, and it’s not clear whether the Obama administration and its allies have given it adequate consideration. In the worst case scenario, we could end with a regime that is both more repressive internally than Gadhafi and more of a threat to the West. Gadhafi is a brutal dictator. But he’s not a mass murderer on par with Hitler and Stalin, or even the Assads and Saddam Hussein (both of whom killed tens or hundreds of thousands of people). There’s plenty of room for Gadhafi’s successors to be worse than he is.

Second, it’s important to remember that the US and Britain cut a deal with Gadhafi in 2003, under which he agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program and stop supporting terrorism, while we agreed to normalize relations and forego efforts to overthrow him [UPDATE: This latter was not an official part of the agreement, but it was certainly understood as a crucial implicit element without which Gadhafi would never have gone for the deal].

It seems that Gadhafi has upheld his side of the bargain, whereas the US and Britain have just massively violated theirs. I’m certainly not suggesting that Gadhafi had some kind of moral right to stay in power and have the US and its allies respect the 2003 agreement. However, it may have been in our interest to keep the deal regardless. Our blatant reneging will make it harder to make similar agreements with other dictators in the future. If foreswearing nuclear weapons and terrorism will lead to your overthrow in a US-supported revolt, any dictator would be a fool to make the deal – or at least to live up to its terms. This point has surely not been lost on Iran, North Korea, and others. The damage to our credibility might have been acceptable if Gadhafi were a large-scale mass murderer or a serious threat to the US. But he was neither.

In sum, the overthrow of Gadhafi is a success for the Obama Administration, and the British and French governments. But the jury is still out on whether they did the right thing.