The UK Is Having the War Debate That America Isn't
The U.S. and Britain both intervened in Iraq and Libya. Only one is now seriously reckoning with those choices.
Over the last two months, the British public has been engaged in a debate about war that has been largely absent from the U.S. presidential election.
On Wednesday, a parliamentary committee in the United Kingdom released a report condemning the government of former Prime Minister David Cameron for its role in the 2011 military intervention in Libya’s civil war. The air campaign by Britain and other coalition members, including France and the United States, prevented Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi from attacking the rebel-held city of Benghazi, and ultimately resulted in Qaddafi’s overthrow and death. But in the years since, Libya has lurched from democratic elections to political chaos and violence. Libya, to the extent that such an entity still exists, is now home to feuding militias, an ISIS affiliate, prospering arms dealers and human smugglers, and a flickering national government buffeted by rival governments.
The parliamentary report chastises Cameron’s government for numerous failings: acting on shoddy intelligence about the threat to Libyan civilians, rushing to war rather than exhausting diplomatic options, underestimating the presence of Islamist extremist groups among rebel forces, allowing the mission to drift from protecting civilians to toppling Qaddafi, not planning for what would replace Qaddafi, and losing interest in rebuilding the country after Qaddafi’s fall.
If these critiques sound familiar, that’s because many echo the findings of a massive report released in July by the former British official John Chilcot, who rebuked former Prime Minister Tony Blair for joining George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 even though the intelligence justifying military action was flawed, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein posed “no imminent threat,” there were peaceful alternatives for disarming Iraq, and few preparations were made for the day after Saddam’s ouster.
The BBC’s James Landale nicely captures the complex lessons of these inquiries: “The subtext [of this week’s parliamentary report on Libya] is that the lessons of Iraq were ignored,” he writes. “Yet in truth the report also reveals the uncertainty among policymakers about military intervention, torn between avoiding another Srebrenica-style massacre when the West turned a blind eye to the killings of Muslims by Bosnian Serbs in 1995 and the need to avoid another Iraq-style intervention when Western countries got bogged down in an internal conflict. What happened in Libya was a half and half policy, of intervention without occupation. And it is a model that did not work.”
I mention all this in the context of the U.S. election because last week, after a “Commander-in-Chief Forum” featuring Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, moderator Matt Lauer was tarred and feathered in the media for not challenging the Republican candidate when he claimed to have opposed the Iraq War from the start. Trump cited a 2004 Esquire article in which he labeled the war a “mess,” but conveniently didn’t mention that time in 2002 when Howard Stern asked him whether he supported invading Iraq, and Trump responded, “Yeah, I guess so. I wish the first time it was done correctly.” Nor did Trump mention his other stray, wishy-washy comments about the war before 2004.
Yes, Trump wasn’t telling the truth. And, as countless critics pointed out after the forum, Lauer should have fact-checked him, rather than pivoting to a frothy question about Trump’s “temperament.”
But this wasn’t exactly Trump’s first evasion of the truth. And the “fact” at issue here is an answer that a businessman 14 years removed from a presidential run gave to a radio host. It’s a couple lines in an interview where more time was spent discussing the looks of Trump’s girlfriend than the Iraq War. The fact—Trump’s “I guess I’m for invading Iraq” —was the verbal equivalent of a shrug emoticon.
Where, by contrast, was the outrage about Trump’s non-answer to an audience member’s question about his plan to prevent a group like ISIS from reemerging in the Middle East if and when ISIS is defeated? Trump’s response largely consisted of restatements of the question and regret that the United States didn’t “take” Iraq’s oil. Lauer asked how America could have taken Iraqi oil, but he didn’t press Trump on his plan to win the peace in the region.
Where was the outrage about Clinton’s claim that the Libyan intervention, which she forcefully advocated for as secretary of state in the Obama administration, “was the right decision. Not taking it, and permitting there to be an ongoing civil war in Libya, would have been as dangerous and threatening as what we are now seeing in Syria.” Clinton didn’t mention the very real fighting—the civil war, you might say—that followed the intervention in Libya. She didn’t reflect on whether, on balance, the Libyan intervention has made Americans safer. And she didn’t discuss the excruciating calculus commanders in chief must make: how she weighs the Libyan lives lost in the conflict that came after the dictator’s death against the Libyan lives that could have been lost had the U.S. and its allies not intervened against Qaddafi. Lauer followed up with a question about Iran.
Where was the outrage about Trump’s assertion that Clinton “made a terrible mistake on Libya … [and] then they complicated the mistake by having no management once they bombed you-know-what out of Qaddafi. … I think that we have great management talents.” Lauer didn’t ask Trump why then, back in 2011, he had supported U.S. military intervention in Libya to “save … lives,” and why Trump had been so confident that it “would be very easy and very quick” to overthrow Qaddafi given his alleged longtime opposition to the Iraq War. Lauer didn’t ask for a couple concrete examples of how Trump would have managed the post-Qaddafi period better than President Obama. Instead, Lauer asked if Trump was “prepared” to be commander in chief.
Where was the outrage when Clinton said her vote for the Iraq War (as a national political leader authorizing war, not a businessman sounding off on a radio show) was a mistake, but then didn’t explain why, specifically, her support for the Libyan intervention wasn’t? Lauer didn’t ask for an explanation. Regarding the Iraq War, Clinton said “it is imperative that we learn from the mistakes.” Lauer wasn’t interested in what lessons she’d learned.
A national-security forum would have been a sensible time to probe the candidates on their theories of war in the post-9/11 world, and how those theories substantively differ—why they took the positions we know they took, what they learned from those decisions, and how they would apply those lessons as president of the United States. After all, as my colleague David Graham has noted, the interventions in Iraq and Libya “show how Clinton and Trump both came to the same conclusions about hitting Baghdad and Tripoli: The wars would be short, good for America, and good for the world. In both cases, they were wrong, and the major contrast between them is that Clinton was better versed in the specifics of both cases when she made her calls.”
The Commander-in-Chief Forum was just one of many instances so far on the campaign trail when matters of war and peace have been boiled down to who was for what when, who founded ISIS, who is a gift to ISIS, and so on. In Britain, the wars in Iraq and Libya have recently prompted introspection and serious wrestling with hard truths. Not so across the Atlantic.