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March 21, 2011

The Lesson the U.S. Is Teaching the World in Libya

In all the discussion about the current U.S. bombing of Libya, something important has gone almost unnoticed—the lesson the United States is teaching the government of every country on earth. That lesson is: no matter what, no matter the inducements or pressure, never ever give up chemical weapons or a nuclear weapons program. Doing so will not ensure that the U.S. does not attack you—on the contrary, it will make it much more likely.

The U.S. already delivered this lesson very powerfully in 2003 by attacking Iraq, a country which had no biological or chemical weapons or nuclear weapons program after 1991, twelve years earlier. Moreover, according to the CIA's 2004 WMD report, Saddam Hussein had begged the Clinton administration for better relations, promising that it would be Washington’s “best friend in the region bar none.” In fact, Iraq said that if it had a security relationship with the U.S., it would be inclined to permanently discard even the ambition for WMD.

In Libya's case, Moammar Gaddafi announced in December, 2003 that it was renouncing all WMD—Libya possessed chemical weapons, ballistic missiles and a nuclear weapons program—and inviting international inspectors to certify its compliance. The U.S. declared that this "demonstrates that, in a world of strong nonproliferation norms, it is never too late to make the decision to become a fully compliant NPT state," and that Libya would be "amply rewarded." From the perspective of many governments, Libya is now receiving its reward, in the form of hundreds of Tomahawk missiles and the likely downfall of the regime that agreed to disarm.

Every government on earth has different factions with different views of the best strategy to deal with the world, factions that constantly battle each other for supremacy. Whether or not Iran has an active nuclear weapons program (it's still the official position of the U.S. intelligence community that it does not) we can be sure the Iranian faction that wants nuclear weapons has been tremendously strengthened by the attack on Libya. And the faction that believes Iran would be safer without nuclear weapons is much weaker, and in fact is probably being ridiculed for its embarrassing naiveté.

Something similar is going on inside the North Korean government. Anyone within the regime who's been pressing for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons is now in a much worse position.

But here's what no Americans know: the current attack on Libya is not an unforeseen glitch in our efforts to get them to disarm. Instead, it was the explicit policy of the U.S. to get countries to disarm so that we would be able to attack them.

This may sound ridiculous to many Americans. After all, no president ever puts it like that. Instead, they say: our enemies must disarm because they threaten the precious lives of our citizens! But in fact when talking to each other, U.S. government officials say it over and over again: we don't oppose countries like Iraq, Libya and Iran having WMD because we're scared they're going to attack us with them. Instead, we oppose them having WMD because that would allow them to deter us from attacking them.

For instance, here's a little-noticed January, 2001 memo by Donald Rumseld just after he became Secretary of Defense:

Several of these [small enemy nations] are intensely hostile to the United States and are arming to deter us from bringing our conventional or nuclear power to bear in a regional crisis...

[U]niversally available [WMD] technologies can be used to create "asymmetric" responses that cannot defeat our forces, but can deny access to critical areas in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia..."asymmetric" approaches can limit our ability to apply military power.

And here's a September, 2002 speech by Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission and author of the 2002 National Security Strategy, about the threat posed by Iraq. The threat was not that Iraq would attack us, but that WMD would make it possible for someone to deter us (and Israel):

I criticise the [Bush] administration a little, because the argument that they make over and over again is that this is about a threat to the United States...

Now, if the danger [from Iraq] is a biological weapon handed to Hamas, then what’s the American alternative then? ... they now can deter us from attacking them, because they really can retaliate against us, by then.

This point was made over and over again in "Rebuilding America's Defenses," the infamous paper from Project for a New American Century. Page 6:

...the United States also must counteract the effects of the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction that may soon allow lesser states to deter U.S. military action by threatening U.S. allies and the American homeland itself. Of all the new and current missions for U.S. armed forces, this must have priority.

Page 51:

When their missiles are tipped with warheads carrying nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, even weak regional powers have a credible deterrent regardless of the balance of conventional forces.

Page 54:

In the post-Cold War era, America and its allies, rather than the Soviet Union, have become the primary objects of deterrence and it is states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea who most wish to develop deterrent capabilities.

In 2008, former senators Daniel Coats and Chuck Robb explained the problem in the Washington Post:

...Iran would not need to employ a nuclear arsenal to threaten U.S. interests.

Simply obtaining the ability to quickly assemble a nuclear weapon would effectively give Iran a nuclear deterrent...

And lead author of "Rebuilding America's Defenses," Thomas Donnelly—a longtime member of the U.S. foreign policy establishment now working at the American Enterprise Institute—also wrote a paper called "Strategy for a Nuclear Iran":

The surest deterrent to American action is a functioning nuclear arsenal...

To be sure, the prospect of a nuclear Iran is a nightmare. But it is less a nightmare because of [a] high likelihood that Tehran would employ its weapons or pass them on to terrorist groups—although that is not beyond the realm of possibility—and more because of the constraining effect it threatens to impose upon U.S. strategy for the greater Middle East.

That's why we pressed Libya to disarm—not because of a threat to U.S. citizens, but because of the threat of a "constraining effect...upon U.S. strategy for the greater Middle East." And it worked: right now we can implement our strategy with far fewer worries.

So that's the lesson the Obama administration is teaching the world: listen to what U.S. officials say about their plans, and take it very, very seriously. Don't make the mistake that Iraq and Libya made and disarm—it's not a path to safety. Instead, it's the quickest route to your own destruction.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at March 21, 2011 08:39 AM

That's very fine work Jon.

Posted by: N E at March 21, 2011 09:11 AM

This is a good argument, but I think you are reasoning formalistically and ignoring vital factual context.

The message is not relevant to most of the nations of the world. The only nations that have any reason to interpret this message in the way that you suggest authoritarian states with a history of high aggressiveness towards both the Western world and their own people. Authoritarian leaders could just as easily draw the conclusion that they should retire while they have a few billion in the bank.

Posted by: Fred Zimmerman at March 21, 2011 09:43 AM

There is certainly a long trail of cookie crumbs leading to the White House gates.

Is any sovereign cookie jar truly safe?

Posted by: Antony Evans at March 21, 2011 10:14 AM

"In all the discussion about the current U.S. bombing of Libya, something important has gone almost unnoticed—the lesson the United States is teaching the government of every country on earth. That lesson is: no matter what, no matter the inducements or pressure, never ever give up chemical weapons or a nuclear weapons program."

Duh, every country already knew this. This has been painfully obvious and discussed for years. Why do you think that President Clinton bombed Serbia but gave money and technology to the North Koreans? The DRPK has known it for years; extorting money via its weapons programs has been the whole point of its foreign policy.

The entire point of Mutually Assured Destruction or even the independent deterrents of the UK and France were again based on similar logic, as was the motivation for Israel, India, and Pakistan to get the bomb. India and Pakistan fought more wars with each other (and India with China) before they were declared nuclear powers. The UK and France, understandably, did not believe that the US would push the button in response to an invasion of their own territory. On a smaller scale, the more paranoid sort of individuals have always favored owning arms for protection and deterrence of aggressors.

This is only news to advocates of unilateral disarmament.

Posted by: John Thacker at March 21, 2011 10:28 AM

I think I'm going to start using 'duh' more.

Posted by: N E at March 21, 2011 10:49 AM

Fred Z: The ICC will not allow a dictator to retire ever again. Their incentive is to do as Qaddafi is doing: cling to power with extreme violence, to the last breath. Mubarak would have done the same if the Egyptian army hadn't told him to take a hike.

Posted by: Noah Yetter at March 21, 2011 10:56 AM

Mr Zimmerman's comment ignores the fact that over the past 60 years the US government has, globally, sought to overthrow democracies in order to replace them with authoritarian regimes. The welfare of the local population isn't a concern, it's whether or not the economy is open to US corporate exploitation. The list of democracies overthrown, and dictators supported is very, very, long.

Posted by: Mark Bingham at March 21, 2011 11:05 AM


Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 21, 2011 11:29 AM

no no no

the REAL lesson to be learned is this:

if your country discovers OIL beneath its soil, immediately back away, destroy all records of the discovery and never ever admit that there is OIL beneath the soil of your country.

for if your country has OIL beneath its soil, sure as shit the usa will come a-knockin'.

( this applies to any natural resource that the usa could conceivably ever want )

Posted by: grasshopper at March 21, 2011 02:25 PM

At this time we are just recycling old enemies. Our typical uninformed american can get all jazzed up about war against Saddam or Quaddaffi becuase they remember those names from wars past and don't need any new justifications. Daniel Ortega better watch his back

Posted by: fledermaus at March 21, 2011 03:01 PM

The pro democracy forces begged for foreign intervention when Qadaffi started slaughtering them. The U.N. Security Council sanctioned this operation. What passes for the 'left' in this country is becoming as schizophrenic as the tea-baggers accusing Obama of being Muslim Socialist. Get a grip.

Posted by: par4 at March 21, 2011 05:51 PM

These posts are great, but what do they have to do with killing ourselves with invisible radiation?

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at March 21, 2011 06:27 PM

The pro democracy forces begged for foreign intervention when Qadaffi started slaughtering them.

It's really hard to understand how anyone could have lived through the past ten years and not understand the most basic facts about history and life on this planet. "Live and learn" seems to be optional.

Lots of people -- including those who are not at all "pro-democracy" -- beg for intervention in all kinds of countries in all kinds of cases. The U.S. does not respond to this begging. Instead, it does what it wants, using the begging as cover if useful. The same goes for France, the UK, etc. and all other governments.

The U.N. Security Council sanctioned this operation.

Yup. The UN Security Council also sanctioned the US strangling Iraq for twelve years on the pretense that Iraq had WMD, killing at least several hundred thousand people in the process. The UN Security Council then failed to act when the US invaded Iraq in the most egregious violation of international law imaginable. The UN Security Council then gave its blessing to the invasion after it happened.

That's because the UN Security Council does pretty much whatever the US tells it to do, reflecting who has power in the world. That's why it's so incredibly telling when the UNSC doesn't do what we tell it to do.

I kind of feel like I'm explaining that 2+2=4, but maybe that's necessary.

What passes for the 'left' in this country is becoming as schizophrenic as the tea-baggers accusing Obama of being Muslim Socialist.

Uh huh.

It really feels like we're back in the nineties, trying to walk people step by step through the reality that bad actions are not transformed into good ones when the president carrying them out has a (D) after their names.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at March 21, 2011 06:40 PM

Wow. You got hit with "US only fights dictators," "that's really obvious," and "But the US is doing it for democracy" within about a dozen comments. Congratulations on your new audience?

Posted by: StO at March 21, 2011 07:14 PM

Nailed it, sad but true

Posted by: jo6pac at March 21, 2011 08:31 PM

@pr4: Since you're the "sane" one, please tell us why enforcing a no fly zone is the way to help the "pro-democracy" opposition? I am sure you'll give us a long list of precedents that worked out great, beginning with the NFZ over Iraq, which allowed Saddam's horrific rule to thrive for a decade. I am sure your command of history is much better than mine and so you'll want to educate me about the greatness of NFZs. Or you want to do it because you listen to your gut?

Posted by: bobs at March 21, 2011 08:43 PM

fred zimmerman: "Authoritarian leaders could just as easily draw the conclusion that they should retire while they have a few billion in the bank."

really? you think they see themselves as CEOs?

Posted by: hapa at March 21, 2011 09:18 PM

Point #1 : There is a vast reservoir of idiocy in the U.S., granted, but I hardly think we have the patent on it. I've encountered stupidity in every corner of this planet. We live in a world of plenty.

Point #2 : I do agree that even the legitimate threat of Iran enriching uranium is precisely why we carefully tiptoe around them.

Point #3: I was amused today, watching Obama & Piñera fetch questions about our involvement with Pinochet. Pinochet & the Shah had more in common than we were ever led to believe. Psst...Obama, I think the Chilean people would've liked an apology from us...not legalese with a dash of vanilla flavored utopianism. Which brings me to...

Point #4 : Arming everyone to the teeth with nukes to stay safe from America is a Kubrick-esque absurdist strategy. I don't trust anyone with nukes. Let me pose this question:

Which is more dangerous? A madman with a high yield, nuclear ICBM, or a country, with a cache of them, trying very hard to be the world's police? The answer is simple: "All of the above."

Posted by: drm at March 21, 2011 10:01 PM

Hmmm... Is it that Project for A New American Century?

"Further, the process of transformation,
even if it brings revolutionary change, is
likely to be a long one, absent some
catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a
new Pearl Harbor."

Yep, that's the one. Written exactly a year before a certain "catastrophic" event.

Of course, there couldn't be any foul play involved now could be?

Posted by: Nikolay Levin at March 21, 2011 11:57 PM

JS: "The UN Security Council also sanctioned the US strangling Iraq for twelve years on the pretense that Iraq had WMD, killing at least several hundred thousand people in the process."

No, not just SEVERAL HUNDERD THOUSAND PEOPLE. No, it was better than that, remember? Remember the HALF MILLION CHILDREN....?

Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it.

--60 Minutes (5/12/96)

Posted by: artguy at March 22, 2011 03:03 AM

I don't want to detract from your main point, Jon, but did Libya really disarm? There have been reports claiming that Qadaffi still has plenty of mustard gas and yellowcake uranium.

Posted by: Chris E. at March 22, 2011 11:23 AM

The real problem is: Trident missile engineer Bob because the Pentagon aims to achieve a disarming first strike capability and wrote First Strike! The Pentagon´s Strategy For Nuclear War and Nuclear Empire (ch. 9 on anti-submarine warfare). Bob Aldridge wrote on the missiles to be deployed on ships in the Black Sea in Bulgaria and in Romania and Poland by 2015: "Whether they are on ships or land, they are still a necessary component for an unanswerable first strike". This leads to Launch On Warning.

Posted by: Claus-Erik Hamle at March 22, 2011 11:41 AM

The MX warhead was designed to minimize nuclear winter effects. So, when the MX was cancelled, the warhead was put on Minuteman-3. The D-5 on Trident-2 is also designed to minimize nuclear winter effects when used against missile silos. Robert C. Aldridge: Nuclear Empire (ch. 9 on anti-submarine warfare). Why is the Pentagon aiming at achieving an unanswerable first strike capability? For Blackmail? OR ???

Posted by: Claus-Erik Hamle at March 22, 2011 12:08 PM

Fred Z., I think Mark Bingham is correct about how the US is mainly concerned that sundry foreign countries be pliable to US corporate interests. Al the same, I really liked High Noon and Julia.

Posted by: biscuit eater at March 22, 2011 01:21 PM

I told an Indian guy (from Bombay) that I was rooting for Iran to get the bomb, so that we wouldn't invade. He got scared.

Posted by: Solar Hero at March 22, 2011 02:02 PM

It seams to me that every one hooked with assumption that Obama will bring about a true and functioning democracy both at home and every where else .., then and from the beginning the question was: how could he when he is not able to get the healthcare which essentially people voted for and were told that they will get one, how can he when he is weak in his policies doing none of what he promised before he was elected as president.., so what is left for him.., name a war after himself…!

For last decade or so US and EU governments been trying very hard to get their military regime into Africa from countries just south of Saudi Arabia.., African Horn.., as US - EU have tried for many years to get into Middle East occupying entire Persian Gulf militarily so is the idea getting into Africa via Libya.

George W. Bush succeeded entering Middle East and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan due to a falsified documents (WMD) presented by those who are after yet another war made possible by US militarism regime, those who have social economic and political interest in the region but living in US and been pushing the US government for decades to start wars. Here in regard to Libya they are doing the same yet with another president belonging to democratic party.

Obama is a very talented speaker, he is poetic in his speech mimicking Dr. Martin Luther King and some times even other people with his poetics language about democracy, yet he is as weak as any other president whom have started a war for the sake of warmongers.., from Vietnam to present war in Iraq and Afghanistan and now Libya.., Johnson hade Vietnam war so as Nixon, Regan hade Iranian contra and more, Bush hade Gulf war, Bill Clinton started the Balkan war, George W. Bush started the Afghanistan and Iraq war and now is Obamas turn to have a war named after him.

United States of America been at war with other countries for last 40 years, none.., absolutely none of them been about democracy nor it has created a democratic government, but it has created a momentum for US and lately in cooperation with EU -NATO entering or staring another war.., all these wars has created another form of dictatorial regimes wherever these wars been.., although it is true that democracy wont be achieved over night.., but last 40 years should be enough time for US and EU to show their achievements or to understand that the policy is not working.

Since 2003 and start of Afghanistan and later Iraq war the Middle East been burning in flames and some people still think that US and EU is about democracy.., either you “democrats” out there don’t understand the principals in democracy or you are ignorant to the fact that there is no such thing as functioning democracy left in US or for that matter in EU even for discussing it.., however, there is what is called a falsified democracy operating under the assumptions that all these wars are about democracy; therefore for last 40 years every president have created a war named after hem without being able to say that this or that country is democratic now because we killed all those whom were not democrats.

Libyan war is about dividing the wealth of Libyans.., in East is the Muslims Brotherhood financed by Saudis kingdom family, and in west is Muammar Kaddafi’s regime who is against Saudis Kingdome family.., here US and EU share a concept or two with Saudis; therefore, US and EU will not interfere in Bahrain yet they will invade countries that are against Saudis Kingdome regime. Iraq was such country, Iran and Syria are schedule to be attacked just for that reasons.., here there are those who argue that all these wars are about saving Israel.., yet Israel is what US gives to.., Saudis are the one that give back to US in terms of buying US war machinery, helping US economy by investing in US and above all they are largest exporter of Oil to US. Let me put it this way.., it was Saudis who attacked WTC buildings in NY.., the Iraqis paid the price for that.., Balkan war was about Sunny Muslims being harassed or even killed by Socialism and Orthodox Serbs in Kosovo.., it turned out that Yugoslavia needed to be divided creating few Muslims countries who were receiving help from Saudis Kingdome family. But the fact about Yugoslavia was that EU needed to be expand its territory and have a open corridor for Oil and Natural gas to be imported from Caspian Sea to Europe.., Kosovo happens to be that corridor.

Kaddafi regime is also against Saudis and rest of the sold soles to what is called western democracy in Arab world.., so US and EU need to find a reason to attack Libya and Muslim Brotherhood about month a go provided that reason. So what is Saudis Kingdome.., are they protecting Israel with their politics in Middle East.., or they really helping Palestinians cause.., or all together they are against Iranian regime.., are they part of creating all these wars for democracy in Middle East keeping Muslims Brotherhood in power.., or they are only against Shiite and all other regimes whom is against their rule.., nonetheless the question for western democracy remains.., if the Muslims brotherhood and Saudi Kingdome family is the only option for EU and US politicians considering these two elements as a tool in creating democracy for people of Libya or Egypt and elsewhere .., and therefore Hillary Clinton hade a meeting with them both in Egypt and Paris before bombing Libya.., and President Obama adding Muslim Brotherhood and considering them as they are representing all the people in Libya.., then Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, social democrats, communists and socialism both in EU and US.., really need to seat down and talk about “democracy” and its principals finding a common ground for the ideology they believe, because the way things are developing we all are in danger.

Posted by: De Ju VU at March 22, 2011 10:16 PM

What am I missing here? Hussein resisted efforts to allow weapons inspectors in to sites until the bitter end, documents were produced (fabricated if you like) that pointed to what might be containers for WMD at clandestine locations, and the explicit reason for invading Iraq was WMDs. In the end the message this sent to any other Axis of Evil leader is that it doesn't matter if you actually have chemical or nuclear weapons, we are willing to invade if we want to, and can make a flimsy case that you do. If you are wondering how this message was received by the crackpot dictators of the world, I don't think it is any mystery why Kim Jong Il disappeared for several months after the invasion of Iraq. To be clear, we are talking about the North Korea Jong Il, that cult of personality one.
If you are saying that invading a country with confirmed stores of WMDs is riskier than invading a country that doesn't, then I would say, to paraphrase another commentor, duh. This would be one of many reasons the US discourages their development. Centrally, this is part of the calculus of any country that has the resources to amass them, and has absolutely nothing to do with what we are doing in Libya today.

Posted by: Adam at March 23, 2011 03:46 PM

I hope I can put in my 2 cents here without fanning the flames. Remember if you please I'm not an expert on anything except myself.

Getting involved in Libya, however malicious and underhanded our government's intent is, is still somewhat respectful of democracy. More Americans favor intervention than oppose, though there is no clear majority (Gallup). Libyans are reportedly "voting with their feet" and have held up signs favoring a no-fly zone. I figure it's a sane position to have considering the 14-year old soldiers involved (NYT).

The usual sensibilities of the left of non-intervention don't sit well with me here. The government has hired outside mercenaries, so we are not the first to intervene.

I know bombing is not pretty, and I know violence is bad, but it's what people want (everyone except the handful of dissenters at the UN, which I'm supposed to look at as an organ of my government's power).

I'm straining to look for a historical precedent of intervention to oust an occupying mercenary army. Spanish civl war perhaps, or the revolts in Iraq against our coalition. I think those will help me get a better clue about strategy, if not morality.

Posted by: LT at March 24, 2011 07:05 PM

I think there's no real link between Libya's onetime WMD program and recent events. Qaddafi would still be riding high except that his people revolted and he responded with violence and crazy talk. It certainly seems like Obama was not predisposed to unilaterally embark on regime change in this situation.

But like it or not, there was widespread perception inside the Beltway back in 2001 that Saddam was actively pursuing WMD development. The IC (of which I was a member, although not involved in the WMD business) simply didn't believe the evidence to the contrary, whether from the UN inspectors or other human sources. & most of the time Saddam didn't send any reassuring signals, preferring to posture as the defiant Arab champion opposing American imperialism (or some such); the US enforcing the no-fly zone in the south & protecting Kurdistan in the north only fueled his posturing. Sadly, the administration that came to power in 2001 was predisposed to take the (very) ambiguous WMD evidence and run with it all the way to the bank. Even al-Qaeda couldn't derail them on 9/11.

Posted by: Ralph Hitchens at March 25, 2011 04:41 PM

If this is the precedent it's setting, then it must also be setting this precedent: 'Don't massacre the civilians of your country if there is an uprising.'

Posted by: ovaut at March 27, 2011 04:25 PM