Washington Matters


Echoes of Iraq as U.S. Bombs Libya

David Morris

Obama borrows a page from George H.W. Bush’s playbook to deal with a loony leader.



Did anybody else have a sense of déjà vu watching the start of bombing in Libya?

The lazy arc of antiaircraft rounds lighting up the night sky. The muffled sounds of shells and bullets. The controlled urgency in the voices of television commentators from deep inside the danger zone, as the U.S. waged war on a long-term, loose-screw madman with a penchant for evil and a willingness to attack his own people.

For most of us, the latest hostilities are a matter of been there, seen that.

It’s not just Libya and Muammar al-Qadhafi, although there is a sense of distant replay there. When he targeted Libya 25 years ago, then-President Ronald Reagan called Qadhafi “the mad dog of the Middle East.” Maybe Reagan should have called him a cat, instead. Qadhafi has certainly had multiple lives, even rehabilitating himself and his country to the point where, under President George W. Bush in 2004, the U.S. restored diplomatic ties with Libya.

And just two years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton proclaimed the U.S. valued its relationship with Libya. “We have many opportunities to deepen and broaden our cooperation, and I am very much looking forward to building on this relationship.”

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Of course, as they say in Washington, that statement is no longer operative. In recent weeks, Clinton led the push for a no-fly zone in Libya. A lot changes when you start killing your own people.

The question now is how many political acts does Qadhafi have left? Will he wriggle off the hook -- again -- to terrorize again another day? Or, one way or another, is this his final act, at least in a leading role?

From where I sit, the situation that has pushed the three-pronged disaster in Japan off the front pages and deeper into television news shows is remarkably similar to the invasion of Iraq -- the first invasion, spearheaded by President George H.W. Bush. Iraq was the first military crisis of his presidency that was Bush’s own doing. After inheriting Iraq and Afghanistan from the second Bush, President Obama now faces his first “homegrown” battle in Libya.

Then, as now, the authority to intercede came in the form of a United Nations resolution authorizing “all necessary means” to control a tyrant. Both moves came with some backing from the Arab world: Saudi Arabia in 1991, Qatar now. And both were accompanied by hand-wringing from all directions in Congress -- some wondering how long the intervention would last and how much it would cost, and others asking why we don’t just kill the bad guy now and be done with it.

Another similarity: Those television images. While Vietnam was the first war brought into American living rooms, with dinnertime newscasts featuring fresh footage of fighting, the 1991 confrontation with Iraq was the first large military operation we were to watch live. Remember CNN’s Bernie Shaw, John Holliman and Peter Arnett, huddled in a Baghdad hotel room as the bombs started to fall? And those first “nightscope” images of tracer shells that kept us huddled around the television? Different war, different dictator, different reporters, but the visuals are largely the same.

Finally, both interventions were slow to develop, albeit for different reasons.

In 1990, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was followed by a trade embargo, a naval blockade and finally, on Nov. 29, the UN giving Iraq until Jan. 15, 1991, to withdraw. The air strikes started on Jan. 17, by Feb. 28 the fighting was over, and the next day, a cease-fire agreement was negotiated. This time, the Obama administration took an inordinate amount of time to decide how to proceed, drawing criticism from some lawmakers in both parties. Once the UN vote took place, though, the air raids began almost immediately.

Saddam Hussein, of course, stayed in power, to be dealt with more than a decade later by another president named Bush and winding up on the losing end of a hangman’s knot.

Like his Iraqi counterpart, Qadhafi got a second chance. Time will tell if it is his last.




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