Libya and Iraq: A study in contrasts

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

By Robert A. Cohn

In a stunning coincidence, two wars in which the United States was involved, those in Libya and Iraq, moved dramatically towards conclusion within hours of one another.

First came the news that Muammar Qaddafi, who had ruled Libya with an iron fist for 42 years, and who had been responsible for state-sponsored terrorism, had been captured and killed by rebel forces after his convoy was hit by a NATO air strike. Then came President Barack Obama’s announcement that all of the remaining 39,000 troops in Iraq will be withdrawn by the end of this year.

Both wars had elements in common: both nations were ruled by brutal dictators, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. The United States under President George W. Bush led the effort to attack Iraq, based on “intelligence” that Iraq was developing or had weapons of mass destruction, which later proved to be false. The war, which started in 2003, did result in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who was captured, tried and executed.

However, the costs to the United States in blood and treasure were staggering: over 4,479 U.S. troops killed and more than 32,000 wounded, many of them horribly so. At its peak, the U.S. had 150,000 troops in Iraq. A staggering $806 billion was expended in the war effort in Iraq.

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To be sure, the volatile Middle East and the world are much better off without Saddam Hussein, and the weak and fragmented government in Baghdad is to be preferred over his brutal dictatorship and his military misadventures, including his war against Iran in which over 1 million were killed and the war he waged against his own Kurdish population (during which he used chemical weapons).

The United States had wanted to maintain a residual force of about 5,000 support troops, but the government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki could not secure parliamentary approval to grant immunity to U.S. service personnel, and so the decision was made by the President to withdraw all remaining troops by the end of December.

In stark contrast to our involvement in Iraq, the decision to support a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Qaddafi’s troops from slaughtering thousands of his own citizens, had been supported by the Arab League, a United Nations Security Council resolution and the active backing of NATO. The U.S. did the initial heavy lifting in maintaining the no-fly zone, but quickly handed off the overall command to NATO, bringing our allies into an effective and united coalition. In the entire campaign for the ouster of Qaddafi, not one U.S. or Allied soldier was killed or wounded, and the entire cost of the operation was $1 billion.

President Obama took much criticism for “leading from behind” and for not using the “full weight” of the American military in Libya to achieve its ends more quickly. But the jingoistic “cowboy diplomacy” of the Bush Administration only resulted in deeper and deeper involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan far beyond the limited initial objectives and great cost in blood and treasure.

It appears at this point that the Obama Doctrine of undertaking military actions in cooperation with our allies rather than going “all in” with only U.S. guns blazing is a more prudent and effective policy for conducting military and anti-terrorist operations.

Just ask Osama bin Laden, Anwar Al-Awlaki and Muammar Qaddafi whether they think those policies are effective or not.


Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.