Friday, April 1, 2011

When Everyone Thinks You’re Wrong, You Just Might Be Right.

Some thoughts on reactions to Obama's actions in Libya, written for Zahranicna Politika.


In the days since President Obama decided to support the UN sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya each little cell on the American ideological spectrum has found out its own unique way to trash him.  And yet, if the sheer variety of disagreement reveals anything, it might be that Obama took the most reasonable and responsible course of action.

To describe the criticism of Obama’s decision to get involved in Libya as “diverse” wouldn’t do justice to the colorful palate of dissenting opinions.  On the left, the criticism typically arose from a combination of distaste for war and meddling in other countries’ affairs.  On the right, the critics have blasted Obama for either acting too slowly (2008 presidential candidate John McCain), for caring too much about international approval instead of simply doing it alone (potential 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney), for using a no-fly zone instead of simply invading the country and killing Gaddafi (2008 VP candidate and potential 2012 Republican nominee Sarah Palin), or for doing acting at all, since:

...for one thing, we haven’t identified yet who the opposition even is to Qaddafi. We don’t know if this is led by Hamas, Hezbollah, or possibly al Qaeda of North Africa. Are we really better off, are United States, our interests better off, if let’s say Al-Qaeda of North Africa now runs Libya?

That astonishingly ignorant statement comes from Michelle Bachmann - apparently one of the front-runners for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.  While these kinds of attacks from the right are clearly motivated by politics rather than policy, they are also easy to dismiss on substantive grounds: the “too slow” criticism somehow neglects that two months ago, Libya wasn’t even on our radar.  The charge of being “too international” ignores the decade of global anti-American loathing that has resulted from unilateral arrogance in the Middle East.  The brilliant idea of simply invading Libya and taking out Gaddafi overlooks that the US tried that - in Iraq - and it took 8 years and cost a trillion dollars.

The attacks from the left are harder to dismiss on purely substantive grounds - those who are against wars and/or foreign interventions have a laundry list of failed military campaigns to point to as supportive evidence of their case.  And yet, when these same people point out the irony of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize they either don’t know or forget that this sort of intervention is a perfect example of the vision that Obama laid out in his acceptance speech in Oslo.  

Perhaps the more valid criticisms of the intervention in Libya could have been raised by folks in any part of the ideological spectrum.  They include questions like: (a) does the President have the power to wage war without the authorization of Congress (according to Obama the candidate he doesn’t - hence, the outrage), (b) do we need another Iraq, (c) why Libya, and (d) what is the end game?

Will all the criticism firing from every direction, it was clear that Obama needed to do a better sales job.  It turns out that when the President is responding to an actual emergency - unlike the manufactured one of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - he does not have the luxury of time to get everyone on board ahead of time like the Bush administration did during the months leading up to the Iraq war in 2003.

And so, 10 days after the start of the offensive, Obama did what he does best - he gave a speech on Libya.  His address was successful in outlining a clear moral and strategic case for the intervention:

It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right. In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

The speech also laid out why this intervention is different from Iraq - in terms of an imminent need, a limited scope, defined means and an international mandate.  Judging from the reactions to the speech in the days that followed, what the President failed to do, was to answer those critics who said that he needs to get authorization from the Congress and those who, correctly, wonder what the end game is in Libya.  What happens if the intervention results in a stalemate between Gaddafi and the rebels?  What happens if the rebels ask for arm assistance in their combat with Gaddafi?  Does the US help them out like they did with Afghans against USSR only to have the same weapons used against them by the Taliban a few decades later?  There are many questions that remain unanswered and for now Libya remains the least popular US military intervention in the last 30 years.