The past 37 years have been replete with U.S. interventions. Some have succeeded, such as our actions in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), the Persian Gulf War (1991) and the Balkans (1995-2000). Some were awful blunders, such as the attempted hostage rescue in Iran (1980), landing the Marines in Lebanon (1982) or the Somalia intervention (1992-94).
Some worked in the short run, but not the longer term - such as the occupation of Haiti in 1994. Others still hang in the balance, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, consuming hundreds of billions of dollars and wrecking thousands of American lives. Along the way, we've bombed a few tyrants such as Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi himself, operated through proxies in Central America, and stood ready with fly-overs, deployments, mobility exercises and sail-bys across the globe.
He offers his own revision of the Weinberger/Powell doctrine (his wording):
Understand the national interests at stake, and decide if the result is worth the cost.
Know your purpose and how the proposed military action will achieve it.
Determine the political endgame before intervening.
Get U.S. public support, obtain diplomatic and legal authority, and get allies engaged.
Avoid U.S. and civilian casualties.
Once you decide to do it, get it over with.
With neocons like Kristol and militaristic nationalists like Rummy or Dick Cheney, they don't care about such principles. If some set of principles like that has some general acceptance, they will just declare them fulfilled, regardless of reality.
But Clark here uses them for some reality-based analysis. For instance, he makes a point that, sadly, even the Obama Administration would at this point consider quaint, even though it's both true and highly relevant: "Offensive war is, in general, illegal." In the structure of international law which the United States had a huge role in constructing, you can't just invade a country because old Republican white guys like Chuck Grassley and Bill Kristol get off on the idea. And, as Clark observes, "In Libya, Gaddafi has used and supported terrorism, murdered Americans and repressed his people for 40 years. The American public may want to see him go. But his current actions aren't an attack on the United States or any other country." (my emphasis) He also makes these observations:
Protecting access to oil supplies has become a vital interest, but Libya doesn't sell much oil to the United States, and what has been cut off is apparently being replaced by Saudi production. Other national interests are more complex. Of course, we want to support democratic movements in the region, but we have two such operations already underway - in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there are the humanitarian concerns. It is hard to stand by as innocent people are caught up in violence, but that's what we did when civil wars in Africa killed several million and when fighting in Darfur killed hundreds of thousands. So far, the violence in Libya is not significant in comparison. Maybe we could earn a cheap "victory," but, on whatever basis we intervene, it would become the United States vs. Gaddafi, and we would be committed to fight to his finish. That could entail a substantial ground operation, some casualties and an extended post-conflict peacekeeping presence. [my emphasis]
... if we want to get rid of Gaddafi, a no-fly zone is unlikely to be sufficient - it is a slick way to slide down the slope to deeper intervention.
In Libya, we don't know who the rebels really are or how a legitimate government would be formed if Gaddafi were pushed out. Perhaps we will have a better sense when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with rebel leaders, as she is scheduled to do this coming week. In a best-case scenario, there would be a constitutional convention, voter lists, political parties and internationally supervised free and fair elections. But there could also be a violent scramble for authority in which the most organized, secretive and vicious elements take over. We are not well-equipped to handle that kind of struggle. And once we intervene, Libya's problems would become our responsibility. [my emphasis]
Given these rules, what is the wisest course of action in Libya? To me, it seems we have no clear basis for action. Whatever resources we dedicate for a no-fly zone would probably be too little, too late. We would once again be committing our military to force regime change in a Muslim land, even though we can't quite bring ourselves to say it. So let's recognize that the basic requirements for successful intervention simply don't exist, at least not yet: We don't have a clearly stated objective, legal authority, committed international support or adequate on-the-scene military capabilities, and Libya's politics hardly foreshadow a clear outcome.
It's worth noting that Clark's guidelines for evaluating military intervention are exactly that. He's providing a framework for evaluating individual cases of possible military action.
He's not attempting in that piece to address the larger strategy within which those decisions are made. As John Mearsheimer explains in his important article, Imperial by DesignThe National Interest 12/16/2010 (Jan-Feb 2011 issue), since the end of the Cold War, the United States has pursued a stategy of global dominance, with the Republican Administrations taking a more neoconservative approach and Democratic Administration and liberal internationalist approach (Mearsheimer calls it a liberal imperialist approach). Decisions about intervention within that framework are different that such decisions would be within a less expansive foreign policy strategy. On this larger strategy issue, see also Stephen Walt at his Foreign Policy blog, Imbalance of power 05/12/2009 and Grading U.S. grand strategy 12/28/2010, and Jake Whitney's interview with Andrew Bacevich, Blood Without GutsGuernica Oct 2010.