Liddick: What are we doing in Libya?
Now that we’ve heard it, shall we see if we can figure out what the “Obama Doctrine” is, and what it says about our goals in Libya?
Despite assertions to the contrary, the doctrine was announced last Monday evening, nine days into the bombing. You could be forgiven for not noticing; the speech was a classic: full of blue-sky sentiment, rhetorical rainbow bridges, straw men and enough misdirection to divert a charging Cape Buffalo. It was declaratory cotton candy.
Why are we breaking things and killing people who are fighting for Moammar Gadhafi in a Libyan tribal war? Because, said the president, the threatened massacre of rebels is a challenge not only to our national interests but to our “values.” National interests, OK. These are the very bricks and mortar of a rational foreign policy. But “values?” Is he referring to the values of Harry Reid? Perhaps Ron Paul? Jeremiah Wright? “Values” is an empty word here, a bright, shiny meaningless noun.
According to President Obama, when the bloodthirsty dictator Gadhafi – with whom we had been making nice for the past few years – was faced with an armed rebellion, he had the temerity to fight back. And when the international community criticized him for being too diligent in eliminating the opposition, he did the unthinkable: He ignored the whining and made clear that he was going to wipe out the armed threat to his government. For this effrontery, he had to go. The president said so in his speech. Twice. The next day, Secretary Clinton echoed the sentiments.
Except … The president also made clear we would not move to dislodge the man ourselves, so we are demanding things we have no intention of working to accomplish. Instead, we seem to be pleading with intimates of the Libyan dictator to take care of the problem for us, hopefully in a way that does not involve reference to the International Court of Justice. For those of a certain age, this sort of bluster accompanied by a lack of will calls to mind that old Chinese phrase “paper tiger.”
So our North African interlude was triggered by a fear of massacre – not of our citizens, but of Libyans. To allow such butchery, the president said, would be “a betrayal of who we are.” He did not elaborate much on what distinguishes a massacre of citizens by their government in Libya from that which is occurring elsewhere in the region – Yemen, Bahrain and Iran come to mind – or in other regions of the world. One wonders, for example, if the “betrayal standard” will apply the next time Beijing starts merrily slaughtering Uzbeks or Tibetans.
Just kidding. We all know the answer. Which makes this justification that much more threadbare.
More troubling, no one seems to have thought about what happens if the rebels manage against the odds to break into Tripoli. Given that this is a tribal conflict, how much vengeance are we prepared to stomach before we begin to bomb those we previously “protected?” All in service of humanitarian concerns, naturally …
And if there is a stalemate – a drawn-out civil war on the North African littoral? According to our War Powers Act, the timer on military deployment began to tick down with the first cruise missile. Unless Congress approves a longer stay, we’re in the bombing-Gadhafi business for no more than another few weeks. What happens if the magic doesn’t work this time? It’s hardly good for the “national interest” if you’re outlasted by a tinhorn dictator so bizarre even his fellow human-rights violators give him a wide berth. People will start to talk …
True, the president did try to draw distinctions. Libya, he argued, is different than, for example, Iraq. No disagreement here: President Bush got approval from Congress for military action before jumping off for Baghdad.
The president also argued for the unique circumstances of the Libyan situation: the particular place and time; our abilities at the moment; the international situation; call it the “correlation of forces” argument. Oh, and the assumption that it would be easy.
So, what can we make of all this – our actions in Libya, and the foreign policy calculations on which they are based?
Clearly, in future we will intervene to protect citizens from their governments. Except when we won’t. We will take a firm stand against dictators who have lost their “legitimacy.” Unless we don’t. We won’t put “boots on the ground” to remove those we say should go. But we will act in response to threats to our national interests and “values.” Whatever they may be. In some cases.
But only if it’s easy.
Zimbabwe, here we come.
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