Monday, April 4, 2011


What to do about Libya? Or perhaps at this point the question should be what is Libya going to do to us? I grew up in the heyday of post-war internationalism. The very fact that a sitting U.S. senator was elected President in 1960 – for only the second time in U.S. history – has sometimes been cited as evidence of the importance of foreign affairs in the public’s mind in the 1950s and 1960s. In those days, the U.S. was the pre-eminent world power, and as such had more or less taken over the role previously played by the British Empire in world affairs. (The U.S. is still off-the-charts superior to anyone else militarily, of course, but back then it was the Great Power in all respects). A lot has changed since then – both in our country and in the world – but the U.S. is still the predominant global power, and I still expect to see it provide leadership in the world. So that means I am not one of those who reflexively shies away from foreign military involvements. That said, there are always many questions to be asked and answered before, during, and after any international military commitment. Part of what is so problematic about our present engagement in Libya is precisely how many questions have not been satisfactorily answered – and possibly not have not even been asked. With the U.S. still fighting two wars in the region, a certain hesitancy about any added involvement is, to say the least, prudent. Admittedly, the U.S. has important, compelling interests in the Middle East and in the larger Arab world. Oil is one, obviously, as is the security of Israel. If anything, the latter is, morally at least, more important than the former. Neither of those interests, however, is likely to be significantly impacted by the Civil War in Libya. The recent overthrow of a long-term ally in Egypt poses (potentially at least) a greater threat to stability in the region and in particular to peace between Israel and its neighbors. But, of course, such considerations all went by the wayside in our eagerness to be “on the right side of history.” (I take it as axiomatic that, if being "on the right side of history" is the best argument offered for any course of action, then it is probably not a course of action that merits recommendation! Egypt may well turn out just fine in the end anyway. It has reasonably, stable functioning social and political institutions and a well-respected army. Libya, after four decades of rule by a far worse dictator that Egypt ever had, will likely be in bad shape regardless of how its current Civil War ends. From the point of view of the long-suffering Libyan people, perhaps anything – including a protracted Civil War –may appear to be an improvement over Qaddafi. (I’m too used to the old spelling to change!) The Administration has pronounced Qaddafi’s regime illegitimate, while professing to eschew regime change. This inconsistent position could conceivably result precisely in a protracted Civil War with Qaddafi still in power for quite some time. It could result in a de facto partition of the country – Quaddafi still in power in Tripoli, the rebels in the east. In fact, all sorts of scenarios are possible, none particularly promising. Besides being a dictator (of whom there are a lot in the world, some better, some worse than others), Qaddafi has, for much of his reign, been an international bad boy – Lockerbie, the IRA, etc. So his overthrow would probably be a benefit to the world. But that was true too of Saddam Hussein, whose removal by President Bush our current President did not endorse at the time. (One of the ironies of the opposition to the 2003 Iraq War is that its opponents, despite often calling it an “illegal” or “unjust” war, never endorsed the obvious corollary of that proposition, i.e., that, if it was wrong to remove Saddam, then his regime should have been restored). In part, I suspect, because our ambivalent feelings as a nation about our experience in Iraq, our Libya policy is something of a muddle. War is unpredictable, and the best planned war can become a muddle. But when the thinking behind it, when the policy itself is a muddle, then “victory” (or whatever substitute is seen as success) seems that much more elusive. When all is said and done, we don’t know what outcome is likely in Libya, and we don’t even seem all that certain what kind of outcome we would like. That’s not an argument against intervention, but it is an argument for a clearer policy and for the democratic deliberation and debate which might get us there. Part of that debate, however, includes the question of how important Libya is in the larger scheme of things. Is Libya as important to us as Egypt or Saudi Arabia – or those middle-eastern bad guys Syria and Iran? And what about the world beyond the Middle East? And what about our own problems at home, which we persist in neglecting at our peril? Again, I am not one to say we should turn inward and, because we have problems and unmet needs at home, should therefore ignore our global responsibilities as the pre-eminent world power. But I have to admit that a cartoon in yesterday’s New York Times did make me take notice. It showed a big, cigarette-smoking, gun-carrying “Libyan Rebel” and a small, sad-looking, American boy, labeled simply “Student” The caption was Quiz: Which Underperformer Is Getting Additional U.S. Aid?

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