I’m not sure what the president’s plan is for Libya but one thing that is already obvious is that we’re not witnessing something that we’re used to seeing. I think Peter Beinart is probably onto something when he says that Obama is leading us into a post-America world. Whether you want to argue that this is because our country is so financially strapped, or because we’ve lost our appetite for costly military intervention, or because the president is secretly working to undermine American hegemony, there are a lot of people who are profoundly uncomfortable about seeing America act on the world stage in anything less than a clearly-defined leadership role.
President Bush broke faith with a lot of American values when he decided to buck the international community and invade Iraq with a minimum of allies, but the spectacle was something we were not unfamiliar with. We went in and overthrew the government, eventually handing its leader over to be hanged by his countrymen. We’ve done similar things in Panama and Grenada, and covertly, in Iran, Chile, Guatemala, and elsewhere. I think the American people are opposed to a ground war in Libya, but they’re simply unprepared for anything less than the removal of Gaddafi from power. They’re also unprepared for a situation in which the U.S. sits in a subordinate role while European powers behave fecklessly and stop short of using the force required to effect regime change.
There is a certain logic to what Obama is doing and has done. If we start with two simple considerations we can see how we got here. The first consideration was simply protecting civilian populations from Gaddafi’s tanks and air force. Either we did this, or we did not. The second consideration was winning some international consensus and support for protecting those civilians. We couldn’t win support without agreeing to limit the mission. When you take those two considerations together and add into it that we don’t have any strong national security interests in Libya and that we don’t want to take ownership of the country, and that we don’t want to spend the money or overextend our military, we wind up with a half-ass intervention that protects the civilians it was intended to protect, but lacks the teeth needed to lead to a stable situation or, at least, the removal of the immediate threat.
So, if nothing changes, I believe Obama will have blundered badly in Libya and he will pay an outsized political price for it. But that is not guaranteed. They are reports that members of Gaddafi’s entourage are looking for a way out. There is an assumption that Gaddafi won’t give up and his support will remain steadfast, and that his military advantage is too strong to be overcome by airpower alone. Those assumptions could prove to be false.
I hope so. There are elements to Obama’s strategy, as far as I can discern it, that are consistent with progressive critiques of foreign policy going back decades. Acting in concert with other nations, power-sharing, cost-sharing, having respect for international law, and putting more emphasis on humanitarian concerns are all progressive goals. So, we have a major interest in seeing this adventure turn out better than we have a right to expect.
But, in a case like this, allowing yourself to be hamstrung by the requirements of international consensus, power-sharing, and cost-sharing, could lead to two bad outcomes. One, which would be ridiculous, would be to split Libya in two and leave Gaddafi in power to devise some insane revenge. The other would be to get involved in arming the rebels in a protracted civil war that tears Libya to shreds and makes a mockery of our humanitarian intervention.
Gaddafi needs to go. If this plan causes him to go soon, it will be a model for the future and a vindication of the idea that the international community can exert power in the interests of human rights, no matter how muddled and messy the process. And that will signal a post-American world, in a good way. But it’s a big gamble, and America isn’t liking it so far.