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GRAY: Mission unaccomplished, in Libya and at home

- - Tuesday, March 5, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

By appointing John F. Kerry to be the new secretary of state, President Obama attempted to tamp down the wildfire of criticism that had erupted over his debacle in Libya. Susan E. Rice, the current U.N. ambassador and the early favorite to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton in Foggy Bottom, had been a central player in causing the Libyan disaster and then attempting to cover it up. By choosing Mr. Kerry over Mrs. Rice, Mr. Obama attempted to stamp out the conflagration that was threatening to consume his second term in office.

But while the president can choose his own ambassadors, he can't choose his own facts. And the fact remains that Libya is a war zone, a political and humanitarian disaster caused by this administration's reckless decision to go to war without a serious plan for decisively winning the war and securing a true peace afterward. The administration ignored the "Powell Doctrine," Colin Powell's and Caspar Weinberger's tried-and-true rule that America's wars must be fought with "overwhelming force quickly and decisively" (and then only to secure "vital interests"), as Mr. Powell put it in a 1992 article in Foreign Affairs.

The administration's failure to truly accomplish the mission in Libya led directly to the Benghazi debacle of Sept. 11, 2012, which cost the lives of our ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, and which in turn has adversely affected subsequent events in North Africa. As public scrutiny began to center on Mrs. Rice's role in covering up the true cause and nature of the Benghazi attack, the president lashed out at Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and other critics: "For them to go after the U.N. ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous."

In fact, what is "outrageous" is the president's attempt to rewrite history, to erase Mrs. Rice's large share of responsibility for Libya and Benghazi.

Just a few months earlier, before things went bad, the Obama administration did not hesitate to congratulate Mrs. Rice for getting America into the Libya war. Time magazine praised her as a "voice for intervention." NBC's Andrea Mitchell cast her as the star in a battle of the sexes, in which hawkish women -- including Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Rice -- successfully argued for "aggressive action" in Libya. Mrs. Rice "was able to engineer a much broader U.N. resolution," Ms. Mitchell wrote, "one with real muscle that goes well beyond the no-fly zone."

Unfortunately, the "muscle" was a war waged without enough power to actually succeed. In what war zone have we ever been so lacking in intelligence and capacity to respond? Now we are dealing with the national and international ramifications, whether the president wants to or not.

The State Department and FBI have rebuffed all serious inquiry into their investigations by treating the Benghazi incident as a criminal matter. But Benghazi wasn't a crime scene -- it's a war zone. And it must be treated as such -- both in the way that the administration carries it out in Libya, and in the way that Congress and the public scrutinizes it here at home.

Those are not the only lessons of Libya and Benghazi. In addition to exemplifying bureaucratic buck-passing and the dangers of starting a war that we do not truly intend to win, the Benghazi disaster reminds us that we are long overdue in updating the legal underpinnings of this war and the broader war on terror.

More than a decade has passed since America responded to the original 9/11 attacks by invading Afghanistan, and the original "authorization of military force" has long since been overtaken by events. We need a new AUMF specifically tailored to cover the modern context -- not just our general strategy of intervention in Libya, Pakistan and the Middle East (perhaps Syria next), but also the specific question of drone warfare. These are subjects that need to be debated -- and resolved -- in the sunlight of congressional debate and decision.

• C. Boyden Gray has served as White House counsel, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, special envoy for Eurasian energy and special envoy for European Union affairs. His column "Arbitrary and Capricious" runs monthly.