This Friday, May 20, will mark the 60th day since President Obama told Congress of his Libyan campaign. According to the War Powers Act, that declaration started a 60-day clock: If Obama fails to obtain congressional support for his decision within this time limit, he has only one option — end American involvement within the following 30 days. See "Death of War Powers Act"for more information.
In light of this, Libya continues to discomfit the international community. No one in the West wants to be accused of shirking the responsibility to protect civilians in conflict zones -- whether the hundreds of thousands who died in Rwanda and Darfur, the millions who died in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the hundreds dying now in Ivory Coast, Yemen and Bahrain. "Not on our watch" was the cry uttered at the height of the "save Darfur" movement; the messaging on Libya summons this same noble feeling. In protecting vulnerable populaces, however, there are four lessons from Libya, which are particularly pertinent for U.S. policymakers.
The first lesson regards the seemingly mundane controls critical to our democracy. The War Powers Act of 1973, created after Vietnam to ensure checks and balances during wartime situations, limits the president's ability to commit armed forces to conditions that are not present in the case of Libya.
The president can only commit armed forces overseas after a declaration of war, after specific statutory authorization or after a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or armed forces. Even with a United Nations mandate, the president must get congressional approval before committing forces. If the United States wants to lead the world in setting the standard for good governance, getting our executive-legislative relationship right is critical.
The second lesson has to do with consistent U.S. policy throughout Middle East, Africa and Asia. Currently, there is little consistency. Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough claims, "we don't intervene based on precedent or based on a certain set of consistency guidelines but rather so that we can advance our interests [like energy security]."
From a moral perspective, we should be consistent with our involvement in light of similarly violent crackdowns in neighboring countries so that we do not send the message that America does not value equally the human rights and freedoms of people. From a strategic security perspective, consistency provides America with protection by undermining the criticism used to rally recruits in counter-U.S. efforts. An inconsistent track record -- U.S. humanitarian intervention in some cases but not others -- gives fodder to our foes.
The third lesson concerns our country's democratic convictions, which must be complemented by an unequivocal commitment to never again prop up autocrats like Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi. These conflict zones, rife with undemocratic rulers supported in the past by the United States, deserve all spectrum of democratic support going forward. Democracy takes time, can't be imposed at the point of a gun and won't manifest immediately. Quick remedies won't work, but quiet and patient support might. This means no more U.S.-backing of rulers like Libya's Col. Gaddafi, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh. Each autocrat was in power for decades, propped up by Western governments at the expense of democracy. We are now paying the price of past precedent. Without peaceful opportunities for revolution that democratic governance enables, our support for autocracies left populations with few alternatives to violent opposition.
The fourth lesson is tactical. In Libya, there were myriad less expensive efforts -- effective in preventing an onslaught on civilians demanding democracy -- that could have been taken before launching Tomahawk missiles. The fact that Western countries were still selling Col. Gaddafi weapons right up until the current conflict made the menace more unmanageable.
Short of ship-launched missile attacks on Libyan infrastructure and air strikes on Libyan troops, there were plenty of effective options for decisive humanitarian intervention we could have employed -- from jamming radio networks to asset freezes and sanctions to back-channel negotiations to a U.S. genocide-prevention unit suggested by a Brookings scholar. Turkey, for example, was in back-channel negotiations prior to the attack on Col. Gaddafi's forces, an effort apparently scuttled by France. These measures are substantially more affordable than the nearly $1 billion already spent in a mission that has no measurable goals.
The best preventative measure of all, however, is to ensure in the future that the United States is not propping up repressive regimes that foster this type of armed resistance. Taking the time to get it right is worth it. It means more people on your side, fewer lives lost and less money spent.
As we contemplate our country's course and commitment in conflict zones, let us reflect on these four lessons from Libya. They are relevant beyond North Africa and may offer criteria for cases post-Gaddafi. If we learn from these lessons, this doesn't have to happen again. Either way, we can't afford another autocrat -- neither can democracy.