Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Friday, August 26th, 2011.


Liberating Libya

Obama Administration

One would thing the imminent downfall of a long-entrenched dictator like Moammar Gadhafi would remain a top news story, but the blogosphere has lost interest already. Even the former warbloggers, the fabled 101st Fighting Keyboarders, are paying little attention.

If you are interested, there is still fighting in and around Tripoli. NATO bombers are clearing a way for the rebel advance. But NATO, including the U.S., stoutly insists it is playing no part in the manhunt for Gadhafi.

And that’s the problem from the warbloggers’ point of view. If America isn’t doing it, it doesn’t count. Trita Parsi writes that “neoconservatives continue to assume that America is the universal source of legitimacy.”

This line of thinking reveals three additional false notions, relevant not just to Libya, but also to the Arab Spring and to U.S. policy toward Iran.

First, that indigenous populations have essentially no ability to bestow legitimacy on their governments. America decides what is legitimate or not for them; they themselves have no say in this. The social contract is not between the populations and their state, but rather, between the state and the government of the United States.

Second, that if the United States ends up talking to an unsavory regime, that act, in and of itself, disenfranchises the local opposition and ensures the survival of the regime. Once Washington bestows legitimacy on the regime by talking to it, the internal opposition is left helpless and powerless.

Third, that the United States stands at the center of all political analyses. The United States is assumed to be — contrary to all empirical evidence — virtually omnipotent. All other actors are at best reacting to U.S. policy and thinking. There isn’t much distribution of power to speak of — the United States holds (or should hold) most cards, and other states are left fighting for the bread crumbs that fall off Washington’s dinner table.

These assumptions invariably lead to Washington’s knee-jerk instinct to think that the U.S. government always has to do something. And that it is also responsible for almost all developments and outcomes. Taking a step back, observing developments, or showing patience are near treacherous acts according to this mind-set; hence the ferocious criticism of Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring.

In other words, the beef is not with the result, but with the fact that the United States wasn’t the feature player in the story. Allowing a bunch of Africans to take their own country back from a dictator is not what America is all about! We have to do it for them, or it isn’t done at all!

Of course, the President also was getting fried from all sides for waging an illegitimate war (and, again, I agree the Constitutional question is a legitimate one), even as he was being fried for not fighting it hard enough.

In “Why Libya Skeptics Were Proved Badly Wrong,” Anne-Marie Slaughter writes,

[T]he depiction of America as “leading from behind” makes no sense. In a multi-power world with problems that are too great for any state to take on alone, effective leadership must come from the centre. Central players mobilise others and create the conditions and coalitions for action – just as President Barack Obama described America’s role in this conflict. In truth, US diplomacy has been adroit in enabling action from other powers in the region, and then knowing when to step out of the way.

Slaughter makes the point that there is a huge difference between an intervention “that helps forces that want to be helped” and invading a country to “liberate” it, ready or not.

Getting back to the “knee-jerk instinct to think that the U.S. government always has to do something,” I think we need to find a balance between the neoconservative view and the isolationism of people like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, who think all military actions are the same, and equally wrong. Fortunately, at the moment we have a president who seems to be finding that balance.

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