With all the heated rhetoric between Trump and Kim, regime change in North Korea has been on my mind for the last few weeks. This is a concern because the last time we removed a dictator, the aftermath in Libya was an unqualified cock-up. Last week, our president said–while ruling out diplomacy, mind you–that “only one thing will work” when it comes to Fat Kim, but Trump was coy about what that one thing actually was. What could that “one thing” be, exactly? If that one thing is removing Kim and his family line from power, then there are all kinds of complications and repercussions that I doubt anyone can fully foresee and, unlike Iraq and Libya, we would be dealing with a nation that has a collection of working atomic bombs.
But first, let’s go back to the Libya intervention. Probably the best after-action report came from the British, and it’s stunning how little play the September 2016 report received at the time, especially in comparison to how Iraq was covered and re-covered. Like with Iraq, the intelligence leading up to the Libyan conflict was terrible, worse than Iraq actually. The initial reason for the intervention was that Gaddafi was intentionally killing civilians in a growing civil conflict, and that the situation was urgent and dire. To support this contention, there was no NIE and there was no Secretary of State standing before the UN making a case. What was the evidence? Basically, bupkis. Alarming charges were made, but there was little or nothing to back them up. Below is but one of the damning paragraphs from the UK report.
We have seen no evidence that the UK Government carried out a proper analysis of the nature of the rebellion in Libya. It may be that the UK Government was unable to analyse the nature of the rebellion in Libya due to incomplete intelligence and insufficient institutional insight and that it was caught up in events as they developed. It could not verify the actual threat to civilians posed by the Gaddafi regime; it selectively took elements of Muammar Gaddafi’s rhetoric at face value; and it failed to identify the militant Islamist extremist element in the rebellion. UK strategy was founded on erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the evidence.
In a case of understatement, US intelligence officials called it “an intelligence-light decision.” In a supreme case of understatement, the former British ambassador to Libya said that “the database of knowledge in terms of people, actors and the tribal structure—the modern database, not the inherited historical knowledge—might well have been less than ideal.” Taking away the niceties, the intelligence sucked. One lesson of Iraq not learned.
Recall that it was SecState Hillary who pushed this bad decision.
Her conviction would be critical in persuading Mr. Obama to join allies in bombing Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. In fact, Mr. Obama’s defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, would later say that in a “51-49” decision, it was Mrs. Clinton’s support that put the ambivalent president over the line.
Fortunately, we currently do not have a Secretary of State like Hillary, at least while Tillerson has a job.
On the subject of sourcing, in Iraq the judgment of Judith Miller and others were informed by the likes of Ahmed Chalabi, who later acknowledged that he was lying through his teeth about Saddam and WMDs. For Libya, the judgment of Hillary Clinton was informed by the likes of Sidney Blumenthal, who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like. Another lesson of Iraq not learned.
In Iraq, post-war plans were developed but no coherent post-war strategy was actually employed, starting with dissolving the Iraqi army and ending when General Petraeus implemented (finally) a counterinsurgency strategy. For Libya, while their army remained undissolved, there was practically no post-war follow-up, thus leading to chaos and the emergence of a militant Islamist insurgency. Yet another lesson of Iraq not learned. A corollary to that unlearned lesson is that political progress cannot occur without a reasonable security environment for the people. Libya has still not recovered in that regard. Even Obama, who hardly ever ‘fessed up to making mistakes, acknowledged that he gacked on this one. There was no strategy.
After Colonel Qaddafi’s fall, with minimal violence and friendly interim leadership, Libya had moved quickly off the top of the administration’s agenda. The regular situation room meetings on Libya, often including the president, simply stopped. The revolt in Syria, in the heart of the Middle East and with nearly four times Libya’s population, took center stage.
Libya, Mr. Ross said, “was farmed out to the working level.”
The inattention was not just neglect. It was policy.
It was this policy of neglect that led directly to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi.
One other lesson: When we take out a dictator, other dictators are watching. For Iraq, at least when it came to Gaddafi, it was a good lesson because the Libyan leader dismantled his nuclear program and was helpful in combating militant Islamists. However, just a mere eight years later, Gaddafi was marked for removal. This did not escape Fat Kim’s notice.
In recent talks, when Americans have asked whether any combination of economic and diplomatic benefits, or security guarantees, could induce Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons, the answer has been no. North Koreans invariably mention the former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. In 2003, when Qaddafi agreed to surrender his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, Bush promised others who might do the same that they would have an “open path to better relations with the United States.” Eight years later, the U.S. and NATO helped to overthrow Qaddafi, who was captured, humiliated, and killed by rebels. At the time, North Korea said that Qaddafi’s fall was “a grave lesson” that persuading other nations to give up weapons was “an invasion tactic.”
I’m sure the Iranian mullahs and other bad actors were watching, too.
There are a couple of lessons in Libya that did not extend back to Iraq. For one, Obama creeped the Libyan mission from protecting civilians to regime change. In Iraq, by comparison, we had an Authorization to Use Military Force. For another, Obama flouted the rule of law by continuing to bomb Libya beyond the 90-day window allowed by the War Powers Resolution. Obama and his supporters defended this unlawfulness by making the absurd claim that dropping hundreds of millions worth of bombs on the soil of another sovereign state did not constitute “hostilities“. I’m still shaking my head on that one.
For North Korea, if there is indeed a direct or imminent threat by the Fat Kim regime, then all bets are off. We’re within our rights to take him out for self-defense reasons. However, if going to war is optional like it was with Libya, then we should take pause and really think this through. I’m not confident that such thinking has occurred by this president. We can only hope that Trump listens to his experts on war, i.e., Mattis, Kelly and McMaster.
P.S. I don’t have a set of brilliant prescriptions for dealing with Fat Kim. If there is no direct or imminent threat, the best we can do is contain him through economic sanctions (hopefully with as many other nations as possible), maintain a strong defensive posture, and push China to push Kim and limit trade with this rogue regime.
P.P.S. No, I’m not above using pet names for douchebags.