Libya and the United States:
What Happens When Sound Bites Don’t Work
One of the fascinating back stories of the U.S. response to the Libyan crisis is how it’s exposed fundamental splits on both Right and Left in this country.
Stereotypically, we expect conservatives to favor war and liberals to oppose it, but we’ve known at least since Vietnam how simplistic that is. In the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, we’ve certainly seen liberals split between supporters (Hillary Clinton, for example) and opponents (Barack Obama, for example) of the Iraq invasion. But conservatives have, with few exceptions (Ron Paul, for example) lined up solidly in favor of a muscular, militaristic response to world problems.
The revolt in Libya, the latest in the revolutionary wave in the Arab world, has posed the dilemma with particular sharpness because it is deceptively easy for Americans to agree that removing Qaddafi would be a good thing. An absolute dictator for over forty years, he has been reliably shown to have been a sponsor of terrorist attacks (most notably the bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland).
We now have the emergence of a consistent, articulate conservative opposition to U.S. intervention in Libya, best exemplified by George Will (Washington Post, March 8, 2011), who raises no less than sixteen hard questions for those who advocate intervention. And this broadside comes in the wake of his declaration of opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, last year (see my previous piece on this at http://www.laprogressive.com/the-media/conservatives-thinkrationally/). Will is articulating what may be termed a traditional, or “paleo-conservative” viewpoint, consistently skeptical toward risky enterprises.
Standing opposed to Will and the paleo-conservatives are a great many neo-conservatives. Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, March 4, 2011) strongly advocates intervention to promote Qaddafi’s fall, and argues that the growing number of those who agree with him is testament to George W. Bush’s wisdom in declaring the “Bush Doctrine,” committing the U.S. to forceful promotion of democracy around the world.
On the liberal side we have a similar split. Senator John Kerry came out for imposing a no-fly zone over Libya (Washington Post, March 4, 2011), while Wesley Clark (Washington Post, March 11, 2011) argued that Libya is not central enough for U.S. interests to warrant intervention. Ross Douthat (New York Times, March 13, 2011) urges that we pay attention to the lessons of the Iraq intervention:
In reality, there are lessons from our years of failure in Iraq that can be applied to an air war over Libya as easily as to a full-scale invasion or counterinsurgency. Indeed, they can be applied to any intervention — however limited its aims, multilateral its means, and competent its commanders.
One is that the United States shouldn’t go to war unless it has a plan not only for the initial military action, but also for the day afterward, and the day after that. Another is that the United States shouldn’t go to war without a detailed understanding of the country we’re entering, and the forces we’re likely to empower.
Moreover, even with the best-laid plans, warfare is always a uniquely high-risk enterprise — which means that the burden of proof should generally rest with hawks rather than with doves, and seven reasonable-sounding reasons for intervening may not add up to a single convincing case for war.
Here Douthat is essentially echoing Will.
No wonder the hyper-cautious Obama is moving as if he were in a minefield that’s been covered with grease. Anything he does (including nothing) will elicit ferocious criticism from both opponents and supporters.
From what I read, he seems to be resisting a no-fly zone or other intervention, on grounds that real revolutions must win on their own. That’s a laudable position, and perhaps based on actual awareness of the decidedly mixed results of U.S. interventions in the past. An invasion on the Iraq model would bring down Qaddafi, but we could not guarantee a result we would like even if a democracy emerged (see contemporary Iraq). A careful and limited intervention in Libya might help bring down Qaddafi, but would not be able to assure that the resultant regime would be to our liking. Complete non-intervention would likely assure Qaddafi’s continuation in power, even though it seems clear that most of the people want him gone.
I arrive at the hesitant and ambivalent conclusion that we should avoid intervening publicly in Libya, because that would only burden the resultant regime with the perception of being our creation and puppet. But I hope that Obama is sending covert help, and I hope he can keep it covert. Ever since Reagan and the Contras, our leaders have had a habit of overtly bragging about what they’re doing “covertly.” This doesn’t do the beneficiaries any good. To take Don Rumsfeld’s name in vain, we need a few more “unknown unknowns.”