First, the preliminaries: It’s great that Muammar Qaddafi is gone and Barack Obama was right to eventually say yes when implored by France, Britain, and the Arab League to intervene on behalf of the Libyan rebels. I’ll accept my reasonable-conservative pat on the head and proceed.
There is a white-hot meme doing damage in all corners of the media right now. MSNBC’s Chuck Todd summed it up Thursday on The Daily Rundown: “It was a trillion dollars and thousands of U.S. lives to topple a dictator in Iraq. It’s a billion dollars and no U.S. lives to topple a dictator in Libya. That’s a pretty stark contrast.”
And a pretty superficial one. If foreign policy comes down to the dollar-to-dictator ratio, why stop with Bush and Saddam? FDR spent 5 trillion in today’s dollars and lost hundreds of thousands of American lives to “topple a dictator” in Germany. Boy, World War II sure was no Libya campaign.
And Todd ignores the logical extension of his reductive analysis. For the billions spent keeping Saddam in his supposed box prior to 2003, and the thousands of American lives lost to terrorists who cited that box as justification for their attacks, the U.S. got…zero dictators toppled. It would seem Bush’s effort counts as something of a mathematical improvement, no?
And speaking of Bush’s effort, without it Qaddafi—yes, Qaddafi, not just Saddam—would not only still be in power, but would also still possess his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Qaddafi gave up his WMD in the spring of 2003, after he saw what post-9/11 America thought about tyrants who played around with such things. And if you don’t think there’s a direct line between toppling Saddam and the current uprisings against Middle East dictators, you should talk to the Libyans themselves. What did they say in the streets of Tripoli when their moment of liberation was about to be quashed by Qaddafi’s air force? “Bring Bush! Make a no fly zone, bomb the planes.” They’d seen what happened to the Iranians who asked for Obama’s help against Ali Khameini in 2009 and determined not to be fooled twice. Instead of Bush the Libyans got Nicolas Sarkozy, who rose to his finest moment on the world stage.
For the blood and treasure spent on Iraq we got a lot more than the killing of a single bad guy. We eliminated the most destabilizing force in the region, broke al Qaeda’s back, placed freedom at the heart of the political debate in the Muslim world, and helped to establish a functioning, if flawed, democracy in Iraq.
War on the cheap isn’t innovative. It’s just cheap. In a Contentions post yesterday, Max Boot beautifully described “the problem with push-button wars” like the one in Libya: “you can damage an enemy or even topple his regime, but you cannot truly dictate the outcome.” I hope I’m wrong but I fear that if Chuck Todd is looking for “stark contrasts” he’ll see few starker than the one between post-Saddam Iraq and post-Qaddafi Libya. Democracy is pricey because it’s precious and rare. Todd and others are praising a billion-dollar hit job, which, when you think about it, seems like a sucker’s deal.