Benghazi on the Hill

"There’s no outcry in the country to say 'comply with the War Powers Act,' outside of academia."  That's what Senator John McCain told Foreign Policy in an interview a few weeks ago.  How quickly things change. With House Speaker John Boehner presenting an ultimatum for administration compliance with the War Powers Act, and Congressional GOP leaders hinting at defunding the campaign, the demand that the Obama administration obtain Congressional authorization for the operation in Libya has suddenly become front page news. A full-scale battle over Presidential authority looms.

The administration should have secured authorization for the Libya campaign early on, to put it on solid legal and bipartisan political footing.  Congressional oversight is as important for the Obama administration as it was during the Bush administration -- a point which applies to Libya just as it does to drone strikes and global counter-terrorism operations. They probably didn't do so because they (correctly) expected that a Congressional resolution authorizing the Libya campaign would come to the President's desk with riders attached repealing health care reform, reinstating Don't Ask Don't Tell, and abolishing Medicare. But politics shouldn't be allowed to outweigh the importance of effective Congressional oversight and respecting the rule of law. 

Beyond the political jockeying, however, the sudden burst of attention to Libya should be an opportunity for the public to take a fresh look at what is actually happening in Libya. This is a good time to realize that the war in Libya was very much worth fighting and that it is moving in a positive direction.  A massacre was averted, all the trends favor the rebels, the emerging National Transitional Council is an unusually impressive government in waiting, and a positive endgame is in sight.  This is a war of which the administration should be proud, not one to be hidden away from public or Congressional view.

I supported the intervention in Libya reluctantly, in the face of strong evidence of in impending humanitarian catastrophe and an unprecedented, intense Arab public demand for Western action.  I believe fully that the NATO intervention prevented a major massacre in Benghazi, which would have guaranteed the survival of the Qaddafi regime.  The retaliation campaign which followed the regime's survival would have been bloodier still. There would have been a chilling effect across the region, encouraging violent repression and demoralizing challengers. And the impact on America's image in the region of failing to act and allowing the massacre would have been profound. Many of the same people (in the Arab world and in the U.S.) who now lambaste Obama for intervening would have been editorializing about his betrayal of his promises to the Muslims of the world and his indifference to Muslim lives.

I recognize that it is difficult to prove any of this, since it is all counter-factual.  Perhaps Qaddafi would have treated Benghazi gently and refrained from subsequent repression, as many have suggested, despite his history and his public rhetoric (though I wonder how many of these critics would have staked their own lives or the lives of their families on such hopes). Certainly other Arab dictators, from Yemen to Syria, continued to use brutal force despite the example of Libya (though there's no way to know what they would have done without that example).   I acknowledge that strong arguments could be and have been made about the limited U.S. national interests directly at stake in Libya, and the real dangers of overstretch, but still believe that the importance of preventing a preventable massacre and helping to facilitate real change in Libya outweigh them.  (The argument that this was a war for Libyan oil strikes me as silly, given Qaddafi's enthusiasm for selling it.) 

The prevailing view seems to be that Libya has become a quagmire, a grinding stalemate with no end in sight.  This is wrong. While nothing is resolved yet, and Qaddafi may still be able to hang on, all the trends are in the favor of the rebels.  There has been a growing cascade of states recognizing the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya, as Qaddafi's support dries up even in Africa.  There are more and more defections from the Qaddafi regime to the NTC, and -- crucially -- virtually no examples of anyone moving in the opposite direction.  The rebels are holding territory, and the battle has moved to Tripoli itself.  Qaddafi appears to be running out of money.   Finally, the NTC itself (several of whom I've had the opportunity to meet) appears to be an impressive group, with serious technocrats attending to key shadow ministries and a real effort to include and represent all parts of Libya.  

The Libya campaign certainly hasn't been perfect -- far from it! -- and many people had strong, legitimate reasons to oppose the intervention.  But there were also strong reasons for intervening.  Much good was done.  Many lives were saved, both immediately in Benghazi and over the longer-term across Libya. The international intervention has helped Libyans to seize the chance for a more democratic and open state which respects the rule of law and human rights. And it was done with NATO in the lead and with serious diplomatic and popular Arab support.   It was worth the fight.

I wish that the Obama administration had obtained Congressional support for the campaign long before it reached today's crisis point.  But now that we are here, I hope that the administration will make a full-throated case for the Libya intervention-- why it was launched, what it accomplished, where it fits into the broader unfolding Arab transformation, and how its success will advance American interests.  

AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

Expellus Assadum!

As the violence in Syria grinds on with no resolution in sight, a chorus of voices is predictably rising demanding that the Obama administration do more to hasten the exit of Bashar al-Assad.  Their impatience is understandable, as is the outrage which I share about the indiscriminate use of violence by an ugly regime.  But Syria will not be solved by Obama deciding to finally use the magic democracy words that he has inexplicably refused to deploy: "Expellus Assadum!" 

The administration is right about the limits of Washington's influence over events in Syria and correct to resist pressure to indulge in symbolic gestures such as withdrawing the Ambassador or calling on Assad to leave.  Prudence is not weakness.  It is the only rational response to the turbulence and uncertainty surrounding Syria today.  That does not mean doing nothing. The Obama administration should continue to ratchet up its rhetorical condemnation of Syrian violence. It might use the threat of International Criminal Court referral and targeted sanctions to encourage regime defections. But increasing pressure is not enough.  Instead, it should continue to focus on a regional and international approach, in cooperation with regional partners such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League, designed to create a real alternative to the seemingly unstoppable descent into brutality and rebellion.

Most arguments for more forceful U.S. action begin with the demand the withdrawal of Ambassador Robert Ford.  This, they argue, will signal to Assad, to Syrians, and to the world that there will be no future relationship with the U.S.  In fact, it would be a symbolic gesture which  wouldn't make much of a difference on the ground and would blind the U.S. inside of Syria at a critical time. The signal to Damascus would be a drop in the ocean, and would quickly fade by the next day's news cycle. The cost would be losing the hard won presence of an able diplomat on the ground at a time of turmoil, which could prove extremely valuable should conditions continue to deteriorate.  There is virtually no international media on the ground in Syria, which puts a premium on even the limited ability of the Embassy to collect information and to engage.  At this point, this is still just a bad idea.   

And then, there's "Expellus Assadum":  the magic words by which Obama might declare that Asad must go and somehow make it so. While there's every reason for the U.S. to ratchet up its rhetorical criticism of an increasingly violent and brutal regime, tougher rhetoric isn't going to change the game.  The entire course of the Arab upheavals this year demonstrates the limits of American influence and control over events or other regional actors.  It most certainly proves that firm Presidential rhetoric is not enough to tip either the internal or the international diplomatic balance.  

Libya should be enough to demonstrate this hard reality.  I'm actually optimistic about Libya -- the diplomatic and military trends all clearly favor the rebels, the NTC has come together into an impressive government-in-waiting, and international consensus has remained reasonably strong. But even if Libya ends well, the reality is that it has taken months under nearly the best possible conditions.  It isn't just that the President used his magic words.  The Libya operation had widespread regional and international support, UN authorization, direct military involvement in a favorable environment for airpower, and an organized and effective opposition on the ground with a viable political leadership. And it has ground on for months. 

The idea that invoking "Expellus Assadum" would quickly lead to an endgame in Syria just doesn't make sense. Demanding that Obama say "Assad must go" seems less about Assad and more about either moral posturing or about creating a rhetorical lever for pressuring Washington -- not Damascus -- to do more to deliver on that new commitment. By putting the President's -- and America's -- credibility on the line, however, it might force unwanted escalation into more concrete actions in order to deliver on the demand. So tougher and sharper rhetoric, with constant condemnations of violence, is not just appropriate but essential... but escalating to "Assad must go" at this point is not. 

Some have suggested ratcheting up the Special Tribunal's investigation of the Hariri assassination in order to increase pressure on Assad.  It's almost enough for me to be nostalgic for my days of being thoroughly lambasted for suggesting that the STL had lost credibility in Lebanon through its perceived politicization.  I'm sure that ratcheting up the STL's pressure on Syria for overtly strategic reasons would do wonders for its reputation.  At any rate, there is little reason to think that this would have any more impact on Assad's calculations than it has over the last six years.  The same applies, by the way, to the sudden enthusiasm for an IAEA referral to the Security Council over Syria's nuclear programs... it's just never a good thing when putatively independent international institutions are seen to be serving an overt political agenda.  The ICC, which would directly focus on the human rights abuses and killings in question, is a far better vehicle for international institutional pressure. 

The case for prudence is strengthened by recalling how little we actually know.  It may not be fashionable to admit the limits to our knowledge but it's important.  I am troubled by the incomplete and often unreliable information available to us about what's happening inside of Syria, with very limited international media and an aggressive activist campaign shaping the narrative. I am not confident about any assessments of Syrian public opinion, which may be tipping against Assad in response to the rolling violence but may not be.  I am skeptical of the Syrian opposition coalition which has been slowly emerging.  I am highly sensitive to the ratcheting effect of rhetorical commitments, which might please activists for a day but then simply create new and more extreme demands.  And despite the horrible bloodshed and brutality, the conditions which made intervention appropriate in Libya simply do not exist in Syria --- and any hint of even the possibility of an American intervention should be avoided scrupulously. 

The most thorough and careful list of policy options which I've seen for increasing pressure on Assad comes from Andrew Tabler and David Schenker: energy sanctions, targeted sanctions designed to split the regime, coordinated unilateral sanctions, an ICC referral for Assad, enhanced relations with the Syrian opposition, and so forth.  This is a thoughtful and useful policy menu for increased U.S. pressure on Damascus, but the reality is that there are limitations to all of these policy instruments.  What is more, pressure alone is not enough.  Too often, U.S. policy in the region, whether towards Iran or Syria or other adversaries, has been reduced to the mechanisms of escalating pressure for its own sake.  This is not the time to fall back into such old habits. 

The administration should continue working carefully with regional partners to shape a broad regional response to the crisis -- an approach which is paying off with Turkey, much of the Gulf, and now even the Arab League.  Attempting to lure Assad away from Tehran made sense even a few months ago, but by this point his brutality has rendered it virtually inconceivable that he would find an open door even if he wished to switch sides.  The policies it adopts should be consistently designed to shape an environment in which parts of the Syrian ruling coalition see the benefit in abandoning the regime, and to shape an environment in which a post-Assad regime would find an interest in finding a pathway into the emerging regional arena. 

The administration should also continue to escalate its rhetorical condemnation of the violence and human rights violations of the Assad regime, and use its public diplomacy to highlight those depredations for regional and international audiences.  The threat of an International Criminal Court referral for Assad and those in his regime complicit in the violence would be consistent with emerging regional norms, and could push regime fence-sitters to abandon the regime. Tabler and Schenker's suggestion of targeted sanctions could also encourage the fragmentation of the regime coalition, at least on the margins. But unilateral sanctions should not come at the expense of a UN resolution, no matter how difficult the process of achieving one. 

Such impact at the margins, through careful international diplomatic work, may not be satisfying, but it may be the best which the U.S. can hope to accomplish right now.  I would much rather be able to wave a magic wand and run off for a good Quidditch match, but that's just not in the cards.