Foreign analyst for the CIA I am not; given that they missed such trivial events as the Iranian Revolution, the Tet Offensive, and 9/11, this means that I’m worse than excruciatingly bad at predicting the future. That said, the media have propagated some utter nonsense about Libya in the past few weeks, so allow me to call “Tressel” on the following popular narratives:
The United States has a humanitarian obligation to intervene: This is not a matter of one’s foreign policy tastes (i.e. are you a Jeffersonian/non-interventionist or a Wilsonian/liberal human rights advocate). Rather, the issue is that our actions may very well not save many lives.
Unlike Rwanda or Kosovo, Gadhafi is not trying to wipe out an entire ethnic minority or social sect. The dictator instead threatened to pursue all enemies and enemy sympathizers. Sure, such a classification could include innocent civilians, and their deaths are certainly tragic. But innocent people die in every military action, just or otherwise. UN military operations will kill noncombatants.
It is easy to understand why liberal interventionalists (ala Hillary Clinton) are upset that no significant action was taken against genocide in Darfur. To them, the international community failed to act against the calculated decimation of an entire people. But Libya is different. Gadhafi will attempt to kill those who seek to usurp his power; he’s not trying to wipe entire tribes off of the map. Gadhafi has overseen the kidnapping and execution of political foes and dissenters. You know who else has done that in the past three years? Russia, China, Venezuela, and about 50 other countries. Humanitarian mandates must differentiate between cataclysmic tragedies and unfortunate events to maintain any semblance of credibility.
Additionally, there is zero proof that overthrowing Gadhafi would not lead to greater innocent casualties than simply keeping him in power. Who is to say that the new government, even if elected democratically, won’t democratically decide to murder anyone deemed a Gadhafi loyalist?
President Obama should have started the intervention earlier, UN be damned: Conservatives have dusted off an old talking point in expressing their utter disdain for the United Nations and international community. By this logic, because the US is bringing the majority of guns and money into the fight, we shouldn’t have waited for anyone’s permission to take action. Furthermore, the burdens of cooperating within the confines of a fickle alliance make effective action far more difficult.
In some cases and at some times, this makes sense. In the Middle East and in 2011, it does not.
There is a widespread belief in the region that the United States is attempting to conquer, culturally and militarily, Muslim and Arab states. You may think this is hogwash, but your opinion really doesn’t matter, because a lot of angry young men on the ground believe it. After debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States can ill afford another unilateral military action gone wrong (not that these actions ever do…). Let the French, British, and UAE take some of the flak.
Proponents of this idea also argue that by waiting, the US allowed loyalist forces to consolidate their gains and hide assets from air strikes. And that’s true. The flip side of the coin: Is a “bomb now, ask questions later” foreign policy (except when faced with an imminent existential threat to the United States) really advisable?
Obama has no strategy in Libya: I certainly think that military action against Libya is a bad idea. However, unlike many lazy conservative journalists, I also don’t seriously believe that the President is going into this on a whim. (“What will it be today, Mr. President?” “I’ll have Cheerios, a blueberry muffin, and…ahh, screw it…tell Gates to bomb Libya.”)
The President is attempting a very, very difficult balancing act, but his decision was part of a discernible strategy: Emerge on the “right” side of popular sentiment in the region. This involves providing support only in situations where the opposition is very likely to emerge victorious. Note how hesitant Obama was to throw even verbal US support behind Mubarak opposition in Egypt…until it became apparent that Mubarak was definitely on his way out. And note that, aside from a few throwaway utterances about promoting democracy, he’s yet to promise support to other popular uprisings (Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, etc.)
The strategy may very well be more nuanced than this, but any honest observer can see that the President isn’t flying blind. Columnists like Charles Krauthammer who complain that the President doesn’t have a strategy remind me of my mother (love her to death) watching a Cavs game. After several unsuccessful attempts at scoring any points, my mom screams at the TV, wondering what in the hell we’re doing. Lost on her are the less obvious strategies at work: off-ball screens, rotations, inside-out passes, etc. It’s not that there is no strategy, it’s that the strategy may not be the best one. (On a side note, I may have just lost one of the blog’s four subscribers.)
Foreign interventions are a tricky endeavor; coupled with the fact that they involve young Americans potentially giving their lives, I tend to be very skeptical of them. But let’s make sure we’re having an honest discussion.