Libya and the Same Ol’ Same Ol’

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I don’t mean to be glib about the situation and the stakes for human life. Sad to say, though, that it is the same ol’ same ol’ in that too, for this is the world and these are our works and days. What I do characterize are our arguments over intervention, our motivation, ends, and means, for that is always the question. If one has followed the arguments and the arguers from Tunisia until today, one has seen, with rare exceptions, the usual suspects take their usual places in the spotlight, making their usual arguments, then give way to other players as the apparent structural author of all political meaning, the U.S. government – the Obama administration – has, if not flipped the script, at least turned the page.

When it was Egypt, conservatives with an embedded Israeli point of view and reflexive criticism of Obamamian policy, championed the stability of autocrats with whom we can work over the naïve dream of a democratic tsunami across the Arab world. When the protesting quickly gave way to dying in Libya, another kind of conservative found voice, in odd but not unforeseen harmony with the humanitarian, interventionist Left, and championed a U.S. rescue of the doomed from a tyrant’s onslaught. The conservative imperialist, for that is what he is, would shame Obama at every turn for not seeking to maintain an American Exceptionalist imperium. The humanitarian interventionist would simply shame Obama, in his reluctance to intervene unwisely, and smash words over his head with Mosaic outrage.

Then circumstances changed – worsened, provoking the acts and speeches of other authors, for there are other authors – and Obama did turn the page. He acted, with others, to intervene. Now came from the standing Greek chorus of caution – earlier off in the wings – the cries of calamitous enterprise. From stage Left, where waited in shadow listening for his cue the Cynic of National (American) Power, came, too, the barking calls of endless war and nefarious purpose. Surely in this world (for there is no other with politics) one can never go wrong as the cynic. What weapon has any other but righteous words, and they also are probably not genuine. In the rock, paper, scissors of political positioning, however, cynicism is all of them . Victorious outcome is guaranteed, for all cynicism requires to win is itself.

What one will search for with effort is the party whose position was not predetermined in a web of events being woven daily. That Obama actually altered, even daily at times modulated, his policy and pronouncements was decried by some as directionless “dithering.” As if the commander finding the battlefield, material, and movements shifting before his eyes would not pause to consider the nature and meaning of the changes. As if rushing headlong to meet the enemy in a forest were not a fool’s way to wage war, or the bravado of cocks. Frequently offered as “no plan of war survives contact with the enemy,” what the Prussian general Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (the Elder) wrote was “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength,” and less famously, “Strategy is a system of expedients.” That is, unless you’re on a mission to pick bones.

The reality is that Libya, as is the Arab world unrest in general, may be the most challenging and wide-ranging development in international relations since the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc, occurring, perhaps, with far greater speed, and with a far lesser existing political infrastructure on the scene on which to build. But, of course, the critics know exactly what should be done, and when, with a general purpose plan to fit all contingencies. Here are some examples of the sorts of argumentative contradictions this kind of posturing produces.

At one end of the spectrum, we have Glenn Greenwald, who spent most of a post the other day comparing Libya to Iraq, with the purpose of using the comparison to argue against any intervention in Libya.

Wasn’t all of that at least as true of Saddam Hussein? Wasn’t that exactly the “humanitarian” case made to justify that invasion?

All the while one is thinking – or should be – “but in Iraq the fighting was not already going on. We started it.” Ah, but wait – Greenwald sees the differences too:

For the reasons I identified the other day, there are major differences between the military actions in Iraq and Libya. [Emphasis added]

One must imagine, then, that Greenwald was contractually obligated to a post that day that he so wasted our time with so slipshod a case.

Greenwald does cite the much more likeable Eugene Robinson, who wrote that

war in Libya is justifiable only if we are going to hold compliant dictators to the same standard we set for defiant ones. If not, then please spare us all the homilies about universal rights and freedoms. We’ll know this isn’t about justice, it’s about power.

As is usual, Greenwald himself gave even more full-throated voicing to the same ideas.

But what I cannot understand at all is how people are willing to believe that the U.S. Government is deploying its military and fighting this war because, out of abundant humanitarianism, it simply cannot abide internal repression, tyranny and violence against one’s own citizens. This is the same government that enthusiastically supports and props up regimes around the world that do exactly that, and that have done exactly that for decades.

Ignoring today Greenwald’s typical (for this argument) conflation of pragmatic relations with unideal nations with “enthusiastically supports and props up regimes,” this is an old (you know, as in same ol’) argument, and a simplistic one, and this is James Kirchick’s appropriate, and appropriately unchanging, response:

The failure to comprehend that these two criteria—“justice” for the oppressed and the preservation of American power—are not mutually exclusive is precisely why Robinson and many other liberals view American military intervention anywhere as inherently suspicious. They are discomfited by the prospect of American power, and see any attempt at preserving it as unfair, if not immoral. That global power politics are closer to a zero sum game than a kindergarten exercise in which all must have prizes, is a prospect that Robinson is either too naive or too ideologically blinkered to understand (that is, were the United States to decline, the current world order would not give way to some rosy, multilateral dispensation mediated by the United Nations, but rather see the rise of the likes of Russia, China, Iran, and other rapacious, authoritarian states).

On the opposing end of the Libya spectrum we have Leon Wieseltier, who has been a leading shamer, properly taking on the ultimately nugatory argument made by most anti-interventionists of “If Libya, why not Congo; if not Darfur, why Libya?’ Now, I offered a version of this argument last week, with the point of calling attention to the need for a specific rationale in any instance of intervention, since, indeed, we cannot intervene everywhere. What Wieseltier attacks is the version of the “If here, why not there” that essentially argues (whether the proponent recognizes it or not) that since we, indeed, cannot intervene everywhere, we should not intervene anywhere. Wieseltier makes an excellent argument against it. However, at the start of his response he offers this rhetorical gesture:

These are debater’s points made by people who have no reason to fear that they will ever need to be rescued.

Ah, but you see, this is rather too facile a flourish – a debater’s point, one might say – for accepting Wieselier’s position (he argued with incendiary moral disgust for immediate and unilateral U.S. intervention) will not necessarily rescue those in need either, any more than would mine (intervention only in consort with others, for a limited time, with limited objectives). For he recognizes, as do I, that one must make choices, and that having made one choice, one may be precluded by capability from making further, even more compelling choices. So the decision will always remain, who to try to rescue if we can and who will be left to their own devices and their fate.

Threading the middle, someone less tendentious, Steve Clemons, seeking in the midst of his criticisms to be reasonable before the complexity of the circumstance, proceeded to be contradictory. Just ten days ago, apparently supportive of administration reluctance to become involved, he wrote,

But as noble as the notion of helping the Libyan opposition may feel and sound, the American impulse to help, to impose with allies a “no-fly zone”, changes the narrative of protest and change in Libya and sets up a dynamic that could easily backfire on America’s interests and reputation. It could also rob success from those seeking to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

Four days later, directly critical of Obama’s decision to act, we read in Foreign Policy,

“In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook,” said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. “The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one.”

But Clemons was not done, three days later still, on the Rachel Maddow show, properly praising the administration’s maintenance of the Arab League fig leaf of support and the achievement of those Chinese and Russian abstentions in the U.N. Security Council, he said,

I think that before this came up, I think President Obama was studying every option and trying to look both at those who worried about having too big an American footprint in this, and what the down side risk would be, but I also think he was looking at the humanitarian dimensions.  And they wanted to behave differently than we had in Kosovo and Rwanda in the past.

And when you saw an imminent crisis, that tens of thousands of people and potential, you know, massive massacre, I think he said that what he was doing wasn‘t enough, it wasn‘t deterring Gadhafi.  And so, he changed course on a dime.

And I think he was in control of it.  This wasn‘t the boys versus girls, you know, Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice versus Tom Donilon and Joe Biden.  This was Barack Obama basically deciding he needed to do something to save those people, but to do it in a minimal way so that the U.S.  footprint and the Western footprint, as you‘d been saying, was small.


But what they did, which I think was a really incredible diplomatic fete is you had five nations abstained at the U.N., all the BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India, China, plus Germany, they didn‘t vote against.  And I think they would have been inclined to, despite that.

And I think the Arab League and where the Arab League came out, as you just said, they‘ve come back and reinforced their position, is a huge diplomatic fete….

So, those people who have criticized the president for slow action aren‘t familiar with the history of our past involvement in humanitarian causes.  I still worry about the sense that the Western footprint in this is too large, and that ultimately, this needs to be the Libyan people who take control of their own destiny.  But I think President Obama is trying to provide a constructive and effective tilt.

Quite a change in tone and assessment, no? And I, too, worry that the U.S. “footprint” may remain too big. But Clemons appears to have come to believe what I do – that among all the loud, certain, and extreme voices, there has been one careful hand in action: Obama’s.


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