Our ‘smart’ intervention in Libya is already escalating

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Less than a fortnight into the United States’ second round of military intervention in Libya, the escalation of this ill-conceived project is already underway. What began with airstrikes has in just 11 days become small-scale ground war, as U.S. Special Operations forces provide direct assistance to Libyan unity government fighters combatting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Though small bands of U.S. troops have been operating in Libya for some time, this newly visible — and newly dangerous — role so close to battle marks a fresh stage for the fourth front in the war on ISIS.

{mosads}It’s an escalation that was essentially predictable, the natural progress of an imprudent war of choice waged entirely at the discretion of the executive branch. This reckless endangerment of American lives mirrors the disregard the Obama administration has shown for the Constitution, Congress and public opinion by the very fact of its Libyan interventions.

Indeed, now as in 2011, there was no formal declaration of war to authorize our involvement in Libya. As in the fight against ISIS more broadly, the White House claims as cover the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which at this point functions like a blank hall-pass you steal and Xerox endlessly to get free run of the middle school.

“These strikes were authorized by the president following a recommendation from Secretary [of Defense Ash] Carter and Chairman Dunford,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in a brief media release that apparently suffices to announce a whole new war in 2016. All that matters, the messaging from Washington has made clear, is judgment of the president.

But the Constitution expressly grants the power to declare war to Congress, a process that should include ample public debate and assessment of voters’ wants. After all, it is we who will be required to suffer the costs of war in blood and treasure alike. We deserve more justification, more process, more respect for the rule of law than any president’s judgment alone can provide.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration incredibly claims that this 15-year-old AUMF authorizes action against a terrorist group that did not exist when the document was written. Geography gets as short a shrift as chronology: ISIS’s Libyan stronghold, the seaside city of Sirte, is more than 3,000 miles from Kabul, Afghanistan, the primary area the AUMF was originally intended to send U.S. troops.

Those discrepancies have raised eyebrows as diverse as those of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) — yes, that Tim Kaine, the one serving as the running mate of former Secretary of State and Libyan intervention mastermind Hillary Clinton. He said as recently as Sunday, Aug. 7, that he maintains “very grave doubts about whether the legal authorities currently in place allow us to wage an offensive war” against ISIS.

Kaine is right, and he justifiably focuses his critique on Congress, which in Libya and in foreign policy more broadly has largely abdicated its constitutional powers. Still, as Paul pointed out in 2011 and more recently, legislative inaction does not excuse executive profligacy. “Congressional debate is a check and balance that hopefully prevents rash and ill-thought out war,” he argued in April of this year, anticipating precisely the renewed intervention we see this month.

“Congress moves slower than the President, by design,” Paul continued, and in 2011 that delay could have provided much-needed “deliberation, arguments on both sides, and a full examination of the costs and consequences of going to war.” Instead, we got a rush to intervene in Libya, which paved the way for ISIS’s expansion.

In 2016, too, we needed prudence and got only escalation. The speed with which this second intervention is evolving is alarming, and it suggests it could well morph into a much bigger boondoggle in the relatively near future. With coalition forces already making significant progress against ISIS in Sirte, it is not difficult to imagine Libya going the way of Afghanistan, with early wins devolving into an aimless stagnation of nation-building.

Do we really want to be stuck in Libya 15 years from now — in 2031 — as we are stuck in Afghanistan 15 years post-invasion, endlessly swatting a terrorist organization that is easy to defeat but impossible to eradicate?

The risk of such a frustrating entanglement is all too real, and it is only compounded by the prospect of an incoming president of a less cautious temperament than Obama. After all, if you have unlimited hall passes, you might as well go down all the halls.

Yet future eventualities aside, what is certain now is that more Americans have been put in harm’s way, with more spending piled on our nearly $20 trillion national debt without so much as a vote. That’s not “smart power at its best,” in Hillary Clinton’s words. It’s out-of-control power at its most typical.

Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time magazine, Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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