Outlook: Gen. Wesley Clark has rules for U.S. interventions. Libya doesn't meet them.

Mar 14, 2011

Gen. Wesley Clark will be online Monday, March 14, at 11:30 a.m. ET, to chat about his latest Outlook piece "The U.S. has rules for interventions. Libya doesn't meet them."

What General Clark doesn't address is what happens if Gaddafi prevails, to Libyans who have joined in opposing him, other freedom movements in the region against autocrats not supported by the west read Iran, Syria....Egypt and Tunisia were both closely allied with the west and finally what kind of terror will a revived Gaddafi support not to mention alliances with other radical regimes Iran N korea Syria. Finally the US should be clear about its position when it come supporting democracy and human rights if you talk the talk be prepared to walk the walk or just keep silent

All good points.  I fear for the worst if Gadhaffi survives.  The US has been through this before when President George H. Bush encouraged the Shia revolt in Iraq in 1991. This is an unfolding action, and for the US to act, there must be a basis.  It might be humanitarian, it might be legal...this might be simply the start of a long effort against Gadhaffi.  At this point the Administration, who has already stated it's determination that Gadhaffi should leave, is working the options.  

Gen. Clark, what's your take on the use of nuclear energy to reduce America's dependence on foreign fossil fuels. Could it be a good 30-50 stopgap as renewable and cleaner fuels are developed? Stan Davis Lakewood, CO

Armand, thanks for your kind words, in the last comment, which I messed up and pushed Publish too soon.


Stan, I have been a supporter of nuclear energy, with appropriate safeguards.  But this is one of those cases where you learn how good the safeguards are.  I am quite concerned by the press reports, that if some dramatic actions aren't taken, a pressure release event could occur with very serious consequences.  In the near term, we can use wind and solar, with batteries or other storage technology converting renewable energy to base-load power.  meanwhile, we have to learn from the experience in Japan.  

Excellent article, General...I agree completely. Unfortunately, discussion of our "defense" policies is so often limited to the handiest soundbit: "support democracy in Libya," in this case, without a rationale review of our options...including non-military ones. Emotional reactions never seem to serve us well. In that connection, do you think Secretary Gates, after getting criticism from some based more on emotion than sense, should have backed away from his original comments warning against the US trying to implement a no-fly zone in Libya?

Thanks.  On Sec Gates reaction, the Administration is no doubt considering the NFZ along with other options, and we may eventually do something like this, but if we do, we must have a legal basis, diplomatic support, and understand the end-game.  It would be pretty surprising if we put in an NFZ, then Gadhaffi took back the territory, and then NATO and the US shrugged and said well, at least we had a NFZ.  But what would we do? THis is what the Administration is probably grappling with.   

General Clark, you make a strong case and it's easy to see how our involvement could escalate. But could we not supply the rebel forces with weapons, supplies, and military advisers as we did in Afghanistan against the Soviets? Would you recommend that course of action?

we can take many different actions that might reinforce the rebels, but one thing we learned in Afghanistan, I hope, is to be more careful about whom we arm and train.  We need to really get a grip on the situation - who are the rebels, what is our rationale for intervening, and we need to think through how far we intend to  push this.  While the US is always on the side f movements pushing greater democracy and himan rights, we are also a nation that stands for the rule of law, including international law.  We don't want to lose that.

If the west allows, as it appears to be willing to do, let Ghadaffi crush the uprising, can we expect every other Middle East dictator to gun down opposition, comforted by the knowledge that the West really doesn't care, and how many generations will it be before Middle eastern moderates will put any trust in western democracies? Isn't a win for Ghaddaffi really a win for bin laden?

you raise a good point, and clearly we favor reform, modernization, and democratization. On the other hand, some of our best allies are also beset by protests, for example, in Bahrain, which has long been targeted by the Iranians as the most vulnerable state in the Gulf and an easy means of pressuring Saudi Arabia. My guess is that we are entering a prolonged period of turmoil, protest, demonstration, repression, and more protests.  Ultimately, we cannot impose democracy - one Iraq is enough,  in my view -  and so we have to find ways to work with both governments and opposition to help people in the region. 

Given the risks of entanglement you write so well about in your Post article, why is it that Presidents still intervene so frequently? It seems to me that both the Bosnia and Iraq interventions did not prevent the re-election of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, so they must not have seen using the military as the huge political risk that your article implies if things go wrong. Is the all-volunteer military partly responsible for disconnecting the public opinion from Presidential consequence?

Certainly the volunteer force has taken away some of the pressures of the Vietnam era, but Presidents respond to public opinion.  President Clinton had made Bosnia a case in his election campaign, because George H. Bush had done nothing.  And in Bosnia we lost no troops. In the case of Iraq, George Bush should have lost the 2004, but he and his Administration continued to perpetuate a linkage of Iraq with 9/11 which had already been disproven.  

How does Muammar Gaddafi's military of today compare to Saddam Hussein's in 1990-91?

Smaller military, and less well-organized and equipped, but a very tough internal security force, trained initially by the East Germans, if memory serves me correctly.  And, in war, strength is relative - against the rebels, he has significant combat power advantages.

General - You got it exactly right. No more foreign entanglements...especially in Arab Muslim lands... unless we have been attacked. This is not our fight! PJT

PJT, thanks. I wish we didn't have foreign entanglements, but as a global power, we have world-wide interests, and we do have to advance and protect those interests.  So, if we do engage,  my interest is that at least we should be relearning old lesson at the expense of our soldiers lives or the mission itself. 

Thank you General Clark for your brilliant article. I hope that President Obama pays attention to it and refuses to give in once again to warmongers. Unfortunately most of the media have already joined the rebels in Libya, advocating for military intervension. I hope that this time wisdom and International law prevails. God bless you.

Thanks.  Well, there are imortant issues at stake here, there are good people in the Administration, and they will have to work the problem.  After this, if Gadhaffi remains in power, he will probably pose some additional challenges for us.

While your intervention rules applied to Libya make a cogent argument for the U.S. to avoid military involvement in Libya, I wonder why you are not equallly rigorous in applying those same rules to the 2nd Iraq War and our Vietnam-like slog in Afghanistan? Your opinion piece is patently politic in sliding over both of these blunders. L. Pearson

L, thanks, but I did for a long time caution and warn against Iraq, and even ran for office because of our blunder in going in..As for Afghanistan, withdrawal now won't alleviate the threat of the terrorist jihadists, and so we have to work that problem a little more - more with akistan, more inside Pakistan, and more with other nations, as well.

Is it ever appropriate for the U.S. military to intervene on purely moral and humanitarian grounds? For example, to oust a brutal dictator or prevent widespread slaughter? Or must there be a vital U.S. interest at stake?

We have often intervened on humanitarian grounds, but taking sides in an internal conflict, or attacking an existing government is a different matterAs part of an international force, under UN auspices, perhaps after a dictator has been indicted for war crimes or similar brutality, the US might intervene.  In the case of Kosovo, we gave long warnings to Serb President Milosevic and did everything we could to empower diplomacy; then, when he initiated ethnic cleansing, NATO acted, with US leadership.   In Haiti, in 1994, we actually prepared an invasion led by the 82nd Airborne Division, to replace the illegal junta and restore democratically elected leaders.    Every case is different.  But to be successful, there needs to be a strong basis in international law, and then an appropriate linkage of the right military strategy and means with a clearly defined and decisive objective.

Weren't you listening when so many people warned of the results? Weren't you listening when Putin warned he would imitate our bad example when we gave diplomatic recognition to Kosovo? He promised he would do the same kind of illegal invasion as we did in the Kosovo intervention -- and then he did it in Georgia during the "August War". Now to be sure, the parallel is not perfect, and it was a low thing for Putin to do no matter how badly he thinks of NATO's intervention in Kosovo, but the point still stands; many people tried to warn both NATO and President Clinton that the entire historically Eastern Orthodox part of the world was going to hate you for this intervention, that it would support the Muslim world's Jihad against Christians. We are not finished yet paying the price in diplomatic and foreign policy terms due to this misadventure. Yet you say that this followed "the rules". How worthless your rules must then be.

Sorry, don't agree.  Putin was  and is apparently seeking to reestablish Russian domination in its Cold War space; NATO action in Kosovo hurt their pride, but they were invited to help and didn't. Just because he cites Kosovo as an example, doesn't mean that if we hadn't acted in Kosovo, he wouldn't have acted in Georgia.  In any case, my rules apply to the US, and are useful in determining how to intervene successfully.  I wouldn't call Russia's intervention in Georgia successful, would you?

Gen.Clark, I have read your article in the Washington Post with great interest and admiration! You have outlined our histroy over the past several decades as well as an accurate list of considerations before we embark on another disaster involving our military involvment and intervention! Rarely have the American people been presented with such clarity on this serious issue. The American people, in my view, have extremely short memories, lack of education involving history and due to our lack of REAL involvement in such wars or personal loss felt by ALL of us, I don't feel public opinion is educated enough to be a decision maker. I hope to see our current administration exercise great restraint from entering into yet another crisis where the US is unclear at to the outcomes or a definitive purpose!! Please keep educating us and the administration!!

Thanks for your compliment.  

The US is, of course, massively more economically stratified than it was 30 years ago, and social mobility has decreased to the point where we're second-worst in the OECD. Meanwhile, more of our servicemen & women come from poorer backgrounds, maybe because of the end of the draft. Studies have found that when we have more veterans in Congress, we're less likely to go to war. And you have to be a millionaire to run for Congress. Does this mean that the dispassionate, strategic decisionmaking process you're advocating is less likely to be heeded?

I am concerned about exactly the trends that you cite.  Hopefully, though, if we do intervene in the future, we'll do it the right way.  There are some real smart folks in this government.    

You did not include the most important criterion for deciding if intervention militarily in foreign affairs should be entertained: Never send our troops to war if we do not have a president who has the mental and personality attributes to be a leader respected by our troops. Never in my lifetime has there been such a discrepancy between hubris of speech on the one hand and inaction and indecision on the other as is demonstrated by the current President. For example, less than a week ago he loudly proclaimed in public that Ghadafi's cruel murdering of Libyans "will not be tolerated." But since then Ghadaffi has gone on a killing rampage unprecedented even for him. I'm not particularly supportive myself for military intervention in any case but certainly not under the leadership of a man who is so given to bluster.

I can assure you that from all the conversations I have had with officers and service members of all ranks  the troops and the chain of command support the President. The Presidency has been called a "bully pulpit<" meaning not, that the President can bully, but that he can make statements that may have real impact.  Unfortunately Gadhaffi chose not to listen.  I am sure there will be painful consequences for him, no matter what the immediate outcome is here. 

In his own words, Gen. Wesley Clark says "helping a Muslim land does not meet our basic requirements for intervention". Isn't that an implicit statement of support for a dictatorship & invitation for extremism let alone a sign of outright racism?

Now, surely, you can read the article, and know that this is not what was written.  I led intervention on behalf of Muslims in Kosovo.  Mischievous comments like your demean the communications essential in democracies.

How do we win the hearts and minds of the general Arab population when we allow another brutal dictator to "wipe out" the freedom fighters in his own country. Qaddafi is a terrorist; as the sponsor for the Lockerbie bombing, he is our enemy. How can we allow his atrocities?

A key question; but we must also consider that if we go in and fight gadhaffi, we have to have strong Arab support behind us and Arab allies with us, or Gadhaffi will try to make us  look like justt another bunch of Europeans and Americans beating up on an Arab leader

By what logic or rule, if the aid we decided to give is"humanitarian" would we have to supply aid to both sides? What would force us to ignore all the documentation of the crimes against his own people that Gaddafi is committing and has committed for years and force us to provide aid to him as well as the people who are trying desperately to unseat him? This is a preposterous stand.

Not so preposterous.  When you go in and give aid to only one side, you are then taking sides, and by doing so, making yourself a target of the other side.  If we want to help only one side, then we must anticipate  that we are "fair game" in the eyes of the other.  And if that's the case, let's just cal a spade a spade and state that our purpose is to get GAdhaffi out - don't pretend that is strictly humanitarian.  We need a clearly defined objective before we go in.

In your article, general, you say that the US has no basis to intervene in the Libyan war. Your same argument could easily have been used about American intervention in World War Two during the early years. As you argued, we had no basis to support the Allies (ie Russia and Britain), but we still provided them with substantial material, financial, and moral support. We even did this when the US public was decidedly AGAINST any sort of intervention at all. President Roosevelt belived that that US was morally obligated to assist the allies. So why isn't this the case now? Why shouldn't we support the Libyans if it's the right thing to do?

WWII was a case of defensive war, and if you read back in the history books, you'll find the US thought long and hard about aiding the Allies before we entered the war.  It  was a tough decision for the country to make.

The reprisals will be horrific. The freedom fighters will be wiped out before and if we implement a no fly zone. Won't Qaddafi, after he takes power again, think...the West if against me, well I will now welcome all terrorists a new safe haven? Time to strike back against the West. They are weak and will not strike back.

Your're right to be concerned about what happens next.

And I'd like to thank all those who participated.  Great questions.  Wish I had time to answer them all....but, stay engaged, this problem with Libya is likely to last a litle while longer!



In This Chat
Gen. Wesley Clark
Wesley K. Clark, a retired Army general and NATO’s former supreme allied commander, is a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California at Los Angeles.
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