New Republic, March 21, 2011
After only a few days of allied military action, the Libyan nightmare has been averted, and the rebels are now marching westward again. Like the invincible Serbian juggernaut of yore, the power of Muammar Qaddafi, which frightened Secretary Gates, has been shaken. President Obama has done an admirable thing. On March 18, he gave a speech explaining his decision. The speech was both ringing and baffling: as the poet said, I wish he would explain his explanation. What follows is a commentary on some of the president’s statements. His words are in italics.
In the face of this injustice, the United States and the international community moved swiftly.
By Bosnian standards, this is swift. By Rwandan standards, anything is swift. By Libyan standards, this is in the nick of time. The non-military actions that the Obama administration took did not impede Qaddafi’s campaign against his people, and the military action that we have taken came as Qaddafi’s campaign had reached the gates of Benghazi—even breached them. The battle of Benghazi had already begun; and it would have been not a battle, but a massacre. For the citizens of Benghazi, and for the leadership of the Libyan opposition, which is based there, this is rescue, pure and simple. Operation Odyssey Dawn was launched a little over a month after the Libyan revolution, and Qaddafi’s war on it, began. For some purposes, four weeks is a short time; for other purposes, it is an eternity. The question of our alacrity is significant, because there are dire circumstances—moral emergencies—in which the traditional sequence of diplomatic, economic, and military responses, the gradualism of ordinary foreign policy, must be abridged, if the means are to match the ends. In such situations, rapid deployment is the most effective deployment.
Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Qaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners.
The president is exactly right. His decision to use force to prevent all those horrors is justified. The situation was even worse, and more urgent, than he allowed: left unchecked, Qaddafi already had committed atrocities against his people. But why do some atrocities have a claim on our conscience and our resources, and others do not? No sooner had Obama explained his decision to use force to rescue the Libyan rebels than the progressive bloggers went to work. This was Ezra Klein’s gloss on Obama’s sentences: “Every year, one million people die from malaria. About three million children die, either directly or indirectly, due to hunger. There is much we could do to help the world if we were willing. The question that needs to be asked is: Why this?” And Andrew Sullivan cleverly objected, about Obama’s view that “the U.S. cannot stand idly by while atrocities take place,” that “we have done nothing in Burma or the Congo and are actively supporting governments in Yemen and Bahrain that are doing almost exactly—if less noisily—what Qaddafi is doing.”
These are debater’s points made by people who have no reason to fear that they will ever need to be rescued. It is important that this “logic” be exposed for what it really is, because it sounds so plausible. Is it hypocritical of the United States to act against Qaddafi and not against Al Khalifa? It is. But there are worse things in this suffering world than hypocrisy. Are we inconsistent? We are. But should we abandon people to slaughter, should we consign freedom fighters to their doom, for the satisfaction of consistency? Simone Weil once remarked that as long as France retained its colonial possessions it was morally disqualified from the struggle against Hitler. It was a breathtakingly consistent and stupid remark. We should be candid. All outrage is selective. Nobody cares about everything equally. Nobody can save everybody, and everybody will not be saved. If everybody who deserves rescue will not be rescued, should nobody who deserves rescue be rescued? If we cannot do everything, must we do nothing? The history of help and rescue is a history of triage. There are also philosophical and moral and political preferences that determine the selectivity of our actions, and those preferences must be provided with valid reasons. Maybe we should be intervening in Burma or Bahrain: let the arguments be made, the principles and the interests adduced. But of course it is not the expansion of American action that interests these writers. What they seek is its contraction. Klein’s point is especially lousy. Did our inaction in Rwanda reduce the frequency of malaria in Africa? Blogging is a notoriously time-consuming vocation. Surely there is a kitchen for the homeless where Klein lives. If he were to tear himself away from his laptop, he would not solve the hunger problem, but it would help.
Yesterday, in response to a call for action by the Libyan people and the Arab League, the U.N. Security Council passed a strong resolution that demands an end to the violence against citizens. It authorizes the use of force with an explicit commitment to pursue all necessary measures to stop the killing. … And we are not going to use force beyond a well-defined goal—specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.
Obama’s characterization of Resolution 1973 recapitulates its strongest and its weakest features. The resolution’s description of the means to be employed is remarkable: it calls for “all necessary measures,” which goes well beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone and covers the air strikes against Qaddafi’s advancing forces, air-defense systems, and command-and-control capabilities that we have been witnessing—and that are transforming the fight for the democratization of Libya into a fair fight. Moreover, “all necessary measures” are to be taken “notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970,” an obscure reference that does nothing less than repeal the arms embargo to Libya that the Security Council established at the end of February. It excludes only “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” This is a powerful warrant for the use of force against Qaddafi.
But the resolution grants this warrant, as the president indicated, “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi.” The ends are humanitarian, not political. I have no objection to the immediate objective of relief, of course; but I wonder about what comes next. The problem, after all, is political: a popular democratic revolt was savagely attacked by a tyrant and his mercenaries and some of his army. If Qaddafi now desists, will we desist, too? Will our intervention result in the de facto partition of Libya? Will Benghazi become a free city—or worse, a “safe haven” —that will require our indefinite protection? Will Qaddafi be granted western Libya and his capital? If he survives, he wins. So what was Obama thinking when he added that “Qaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misrata, and Zawiya, and establish water, electricity, and gas supplies to all areas”? We have sent our planes and our submarines into action only for that?
If we had acted a few weeks ago, when the Libyan rebels were five hundred miles to the west, a political outcome would have been more likely. But this concrete perplexity broaches a more general consideration. There are cases—and they must be scrupulously pondered—in which it may be a mistake to dissociate the humanitarian from the political, because the atrocities that occasion the humanitarian response are political in origin, and only a political change will eliminate their cause. For this reason, I am heartened by the implication of that esoteric reference to Resolution 1970, because it may support the transfer of arms to the Libyan rebels. As long as Qaddafi stays in power, the national and regional danger remains in place, and worsens.
In the coming weeks, we will continue to help the Libyan people with humanitarian and economic assistance so that they can fulfill their aspirations peacefully.
This is bizarre. Peacefully? The Libyan people are in the midst of an armed revolt against a dictator who is in the midst of an armed campaign to crush them. There is a war in Libya. It erupted because the Libyan people finally despaired of fulfilling their aspirations peacefully. When they tried to do so, they were murdered. So they fought back. The president may not wish to be embroiled in an internecine Libyan conflict, but there he is. He should console himself that it is not a civil war, but it is a war nonetheless.
I detect in Obama’s sentence the enchantment of Tahrir Square, so a few cautionary words about what is and is not to be inferred from the revolution in Cairo are in order. What happened in Tahrir Square was extraordinary. Many hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated for many weeks against a despised regime and killed nobody. The army surrounded the demonstrators with tanks and killed nobody. (The secret police and Mubarak’s thugs did the dirty work.) Tahrir Square was a miracle—but a miracle is not a model. There will be instances—they have already occurred—when democratic protestors may resort to violence, to defend themselves or to overthrow the tyrant. Democracy does not entail pacifism. “From the beginning of these protests,” Obama continued, “we have made it clear that we are opposed to violence.” All violence? In Libya the dissidents did not begin with violence, but they took up arms in a just cause. It should not be hard for us, the children of Lexington and Concord, to understand them. And so I am puzzled by Obama’s “peacefully.” Perhaps he believes that Qaddafi will do the rational thing and leave for Caracas. If he wishes to demonstrate that he has no illusions about the rationality, and the political acceptability, of Qaddafi, whom not long ago he declared “must go,” he should recognize the provisional Libyan government, as some of our allies have done.
In this effort, the United States is prepared to act as part of an international coalition. American leadership is essential, but that does not mean acting alone—it means shaping the conditions for the international community to act together. … And this is precisely how the international community should work.
This is the experiment behind Obama’s military action, his proposed innovation in the methods and grounds of intervention. He will do it, but in a new way. The “American leadership” that is “essential” is not like, say, the American leadership of George H.W. Bush in the war for the liberation of Kuwait, which was a multilateral effort organized unilaterally, you might say, by the United States. Obama dislikes such a degree of American primacy—the perception of it, the reality of it. This dislike amounts to a historical and strategic re-orientation In Paris, Hillary Clinton articulated the re-orientation bluntly: “We did not lead this. We did not engage in unilateral actions in any way, but we strongly support the international community taking action against governments and leaders who behave as Qaddafi is unfortunately doing.”
As a practical matter, a bit of post-Iraq cunning, this makes some sense. It is useful, I suppose, that the Arab League has thrown its otherwise dubious authority behind this effort, and that “the red, green, and black of Arab flags be prominent in the military operations,” as a senior official told The New York Times, even though so far only Qatar among the Arab states is participating in the mission and its flag is not especially visible. But how useful, really? Who, really, is fooled? The campaign did not begin until the American president was persuaded that it should begin. The missiles that destroyed Qaddafi’s capabilities were American missiles. The United States will turn over command of the operation to a European ally, but not until the American military does what the American military does best. So the conduct of Operation Odyssey Dawn affirms the American centrality that American officials wish to deny. (This centrality, incidentally, is not inconsistent with Resolution 1973, which does not authorize a coalition. It “authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures…” It asks only that the individual states “inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take.” Can it be that the United Nations was less anxious about American initiative than the American president?)
The organization of Operation Odyssey Dawn represents Obama’s ambivalence about the global preeminence of the United States. So do its origins: David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy concluded that an atrocity must be militarily prevented before Barack Obama did. Or at least they said so publicly; but the public pronouncements of presidents, particularly in open societies, are necessary to prepare public opinion for a discussion of the proposed course of action. Reticence about first principles and bold actions is not a presidential virtue. “Sarkozy! Sarkozy!” the rebels in Benghazi are now shouting. I would have preferred to hear “Obama! Obama!” I have no doubt that they would have gratefully cried out the president’s name, even though we are in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the time Obama is finished with his serial opacities and last-minute adjustments about the democratic struggle in the Middle East, he will have forfeited the trust of both its regimes and its peoples.
“We did not lead this”: what sort of boast is that? According to Resolution 1973, Qaddafi has committed “gross and systematic violation of human rights, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, and summary executions” and “systematic attacks … against the civilian population [that] may amount to crimes against humanity.” We should have led this. I respect the deliberateness with which Obama considers sending American soldiers into battle: the Constitution gives the commander-in-chief the lonely power of life and death. But this same power makes the American president uniquely able to do—pardon my ideological naivete—good in the world. He can rescue, and save, and support, and protect. And he can know this prior to any crisis; this can be pre-deliberated. What matters is his prior conception of the American presidency and of American power. A reluctance to put American troops in harm’s way must not be confused with a reluctance to recognize, or to accept, that the thwarting of a crime against humanity is not one of the burdens of the office, but one of its glories. There is no historical shame, no historical cost, in delivering a city of 750,000 people, and a democratic revolt, from the brutal designs of a lunatic tyrant, and in being seen to be doing so. There is only honor.
(Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.)
AMERICA’S DESCENT INTO STRATEGIC DEMENTIA
Caroline B. Glick
Jerusalem Post, March 21, 2011
The U.S.’s new war against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is the latest sign of its steady regional decline. In media interviews over the weekend, U.S. military chief Adm. Michael Mullen was hard-pressed to explain either the goal of the military strikes in Libya or their strategic rationale.
Mullen’s difficulty explaining the purpose of this new war was indicative of the increasing irrationality of U.S. foreign policy.
Traditionally, states have crafted their foreign policy to expand their wealth and bolster their national security. In this context, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has traditionally been directed towards advancing three goals: Guaranteeing the free flow of inexpensive petroleum products from the Middle East to global market; strengthening regimes and governments that are in a position to advance this core U.S. goal at the expense of U.S. enemies; and fighting against regional forces like the pan-Arabists and the jihadists that advance a political program inherently hostile to U.S. power.
Other competing interests have periodically interfered with U.S. Middle East policy. And these have to greater or lesser degrees impaired the U.S.’s ability to formulate and implement rational policies in the region.
These competing interests have included the desire to placate somewhat friendly Arab regimes that are stressed by or dominated by anti-U.S. forces; a desire to foster good relations with Europe; and a desire to win the support of the U.S. media.
Under the Obama administration, these competing interests have not merely influenced U.S. policy in the Middle East. They have dominated it. Core American interests have been thrown to the wayside.
Before considering the deleterious impact this descent into strategic dementia has had on U.S. interests, it is necessary to consider the motivations of the various sides to the foreign policy debate in the U.S. today.
All of the sides have contributed to the fact that U.S. Middle East policy is now firmly submerged in a morass of strategic insanity.
The first side in the debate is the anti-imperialist camp, represented by President Barack Obama himself. Since taking office, Obama has made clear that he views the U.S. as an imperialist power on the world stage. As a result, the overarching goal of Obama’s foreign policy has been to end U.S. global hegemony.
Obama looks to the UN as a vehicle for tethering the U.S. superpower. He views U.S. allies in the Middle East and around the world with suspicion because he feels that as U.S. allies, they are complicit with U.S. imperialism.
Given his view, Obama’s instincts dictate that he do nothing to advance the U.S.’s core interests in the Middle East. Consider his policies towards Iran. The Iranian regime threatens all of the U.S.’s core regional interests.
And yet, Obama has refused to lift a finger against the mullahs.
Operating under the assumption that U.S. enemies are right to hate America due to its global hegemony, when the mullahs stole the 2009 presidential elections for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and then violently repressed the pro-Western opposition Green Movement, Obama sided with the mullahs.
Aside from its imperative to lash out at Israel, Obama’s ideological predisposition would permit him to happily sit on the sidelines and do nothing against U.S. foe or friend alike. But given Obama’s basic suspicion of U.S. allies, to the extent he has bowed to pressure to take action in the Middle East, he has always done so to the detriment of U.S. allies.
Obama’s treatment of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is case in point.
When the Muslim Brotherhood-backed opposition protests began in late January, Obama was perfectly happy to do nothing despite the U.S.’s overwhelming national interest in preserving Mubarak in power. But when faced with domestic pressure to intervene against Mubarak, he did so with a vengeance.
Not only did Obama force Mubarak to resign. He prevented Mubarak from resigning in September and so ensured that the Brotherhood would dominate the transition period to the new regime.
Obama’s most outspoken opponents in the U.S. foreign policy debate are the neoconservatives.
Like Obama, the neoconservatives are not motivated to act by concern for the U.S.’s core regional interests. What motivates them is their belief that the U.S. must always oppose tyranny.
In some cases, like Iran and Iraq, the neoconservatives’ view was in consonance with U.S. strategic interests and so their policy recommendation of siding with regime opponents against the regimes was rational.
The problem with the neoconservative position is that it makes no distinction between liberal regime opponents and illiberal regime opponents. It can see no difference between pro-U.S. despots and anti-U.S. despots.
If there is noticeable opposition to tyrants, then the U.S. must support that opposition.
This view is what informed the neoconservative bid to oust Mubarak last month and Gaddafi this month.
The fracture between the Obama camp and the neoconservative camp came to a head with Libya. Obama wished to sit on the sidelines and the neoconservatives pushed for intervention.
To an even greater degree than in Egypt, the debate was settled by the third U.S. foreign policy camp—the opportunists. Led today by Clinton, the opportunist camp supports whoever they believe is going to make them most popular with the media and Europe.
In the case of Libya, the opportunist interests dictated military intervention against Gaddafi. Europe opposes Gaddafi because the French and the British bet early on that his opponents were winning. France recognized the opposition as the legitimate government two weeks ago.
Once Gaddafi’s counteroffensive began, France and Britain realized they would be harmed politically and economically if Gaddafi maintained power so they began calling for military strikes to overthrow him.
As for the media, they were quick to romanticize the amorphous “opposition” as freedom fighters.
Seeing the direction of the wind, Clinton jumped on the European-media bandwagon and forced Obama to agree to a military operation whose goal no one can define.
What the U.S. foreign policy fights regarding Egypt and Libya indicate is that currently, a discussion about how events impact core U.S. regional interests is completely absent from the discussion. Consequently, it should surprise no one that none of the policies the U.S. is implementing in the region advance those core interests in any way. Indeed, they are being severely damaged.
Under Mubarak, Egypt advanced U.S. interests in two main ways. First, by waging war against the Muslim Brotherhood and opposing the rise of Iranian power in the region, Mubarak weakened the regional forces that most threatened U.S. interests. Second, by managing the Suez Canal in conformance with international maritime law, Egypt facilitated the smooth transport of petroleum products to global markets and prevented Iran from operating in the Mediterranean Sea.
Since Mubarak was ousted, the ruling military junta has taken actions that signal that Egypt is no longer interested in behaving in a manner that advances U.S. interests.
Domestically, the junta has embarked on a course that all but guarantees the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in the fall.
Saturday’s referendum on constitutional amendments was a huge victory for the Brotherhood on two counts. First, it cemented Islamic law as the primary source of legislation and so paved the way for the Brotherhood’s transformation of Egypt into an Islamic state. Under Mubarak, that constitutional article meant nothing. Under the Brotherhood, it means everything.
Second, it set the date for parliamentary elections for September. Only the Brotherhood, and remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party will be ready to stand for election so soon. The liberals have no chance of mounting a coherent campaign in just six months.
In anticipation of the Brotherhood’s rise to power, the military has begun realigning Egypt into the Iranian camp. This realignment is seen most openly in Egypt’s new support for Hamas. Mubarak opposed Hamas because it is part of the Brotherhood.
The junta supports it for the same reason. Newly appointed Foreign Minister Nabil el-Araby has already called for the opening of Egypt’s border with Hamasruled Gaza.
There can be little doubt Hamas’s massive rocket barrage against Israel on Saturday was the product of its sense that Egypt is now on its side.
As for the Suez Canal, the junta’s behavior so far is a cause for alarm. Binding UN Security Council Resolution 1747 from 2007 bars Iran from shipping arms. Yet last month the junta thumbed its nose at international law and permitted two Iranian naval ships to traverse the canal without being inspected.
According to military sources, one of the ships carried advanced armaments. These were illicitly transferred to the German merchant ship Victoria at Syria’s Latakia port. Last week, IDF naval commandos interdicted the Victoria with its Iranian weaponry en route to Gaza via Alexandria.
Add to that Egypt’s decision to abrogate its contractual obligation to supply Israel with natural gas and we see that the junta is willing to suspend its commitment to international law in order to realign its foreign policy with Iran.
On every level, a post-Mubarak Egypt threatens the U.S. core interests that Mubarak advanced.
Then there is Libya. One of the most astounding aspects of the U.S. debate on Libya in recent weeks has been the scant attention paid to the nature of the rebels.
The rebels are reportedly represented by the so-called National Transitional Council led by several of Gaddafi’s former ministers.
But while these men—who are themselves competing for the leadership mantle—are the face of the NTC, it is unclear who stands behind them. Only nine of the NTC’s 31 members have been identified.
Unfortunately, available data suggest that the rebels championed as freedom fighters by the neoconservatives, the opportunists, the Europeans and the Western media alike are not exactly liberal democrats. Indeed, the data indicate that Gaddafi’s opponents are more aligned with al-Qaida than with the US.
Under jihadist commander Abu Yahya Al- Libi, Libyan jihadists staged anti-regime uprisings in the mid-1990s. Like today, those uprisings’ central hubs were Benghazi and Darnah.
In 2007 Al-Libi merged his forces into al- Qaida. On March 18, while denouncing the U.S., France and Britain, Al-Libi called on his forces to overthrow Gaddafi.
A 2007 US Military Academy study of information on al-Qaida forces in Iraq indicate that by far, Eastern Libya made the largest per capita contribution to al-Qaida forces in Iraq.
None of this proves that the U.S. is now assisting an al-Qaida takeover of Libya. But it certainly indicates that the forces being assisted by the U.S. in Libya are probably no more sympathetic to U.S. interests than Gaddafi is. At a minimum, the data indicate the U.S. has no compelling national interest in helping the rebels in overthrow Gaddafi.
The significance of the U.S.’s descent into strategic irrationality bodes ill not just for U.S. allies, but for America itself. Until the U.S. foreign policy community is again able to recognize and work to advance the U.S.’s core interests in the Middle East, America’s policies will threaten both its allies and itself.