Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Are We Bombing Libya?

Given my relatively limited knowledge of foreign policy and geopolitics, I have refrained from commenting too often on the current Middle Eastern turmoil. Call it the better part of wisdom....

I did, however, make two points that seem to me to be worth emphasis.

First, I said that I did not have confidence in the Obama/Clinton team’s ability to manage the crisis.

Second, I feared that our inexperienced leaders would interpret the events through the lens of a narrative fiction of revolution, thereby ignoring the realities on the ground.

In the current assault on Libya we see both of these themes in action.

Michael Kinsley echoed my first point in this analysis today : “If Kadafi is still in power a year from now, even if he is obeying the no-fly rules, it will be regarded worldwide as more evidence of America's decline as a great power and regarded in America as evidence that Democrats in general and Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in particular are not ready to play foreign policy with the big children.” Link here.

Doubtless, I am more cynical than Kinsley, but I believe that one reason we are bombing Libya is to make Obama and Clinton look like they can play foreign policy with the big children. I assume that Kinsley mentions the big children because the notion of Obama and Clinton playing foreign policy with the adults is laughable.

To me, and perhaps only to me, the operation looks and feels like political theatre, a public relations effort to show off the decisive leadership qualities of an administration that was being denounced around the world as weak and feckless. After all, Obama's most notable skill is running political campaigns.

This suggests that the the bombings are more about the show than the substance. It has more to do with Obama’s re-election campaign and less to do with conducting foreign policy. Kinsley foreshadows this when he suggests that if Kadafi is brought down by the bombing campaign, the administration will use it to silence those who have criticized its bumbling attempts at foreign policy.

Given that Obama has pretended that United States is not really leading the coalition, he is also giving himself an easy out if things go wrong. Multilaterism means that you do not have to take responsibility.

As David Brooks wisely pointed out this morning, multilateralism is the enemy of clear and decisive leadership. Link here.

As we know. multilateralism was first tried at the Tower of Babel. It did not work very well then; it still does not work very well.

Of course, if the Kadafi is defeated, the administration will immediately rush to the microphones to  take full credit.

As for coalition building, everyone knows that the coalition George Bush led into Iraq was far more substantial than the one that Barack Obama has just joined.

When it comes to the substance of the policy, the truth seems to be that beyond all the gauzy platitudes about saving human life, the administration does not know what it is doing.

Two accounts this morning suggested that the administration is detached from the reality of the situation because it is reading events through a narrative. One was written by Leslie Gelb, formerly head of the Council of Foreign Relations; the other was by George Friedman of Stratfor.

Gelb throws down the gauntlet: “There's nothing like a foreign-policy crisis, real or imagined, to ignite the worst among world leaders and foreign-policy experts. Out pop the nuclear weapons of the trade: phony analogies and unabashed hypocrisy. The manufactured crisis in Libya is a prime case in point. No foreign states have vital interests at stake in Libya. Events in this rather odd and isolated land have little bearing on the rest of the tumultuous Mideast region. Also not to be dismissed, there are far, far worse humanitarian horrors elsewhere.”

Gelb analyzes a situation where neocons and liberal humanitarian interventionists have created a rhetorical tsunami that is so powerful that even Barack Obama cannot maintain their good sense. One suspects that Gelb is using the metaphor of powerful media forces in order to absolve Obama of responsibility.

Yet, Obama is our president. If he does not know enough to see through the rhetoric to establish a coherent and principled policy, then he should look for a new job.

Gelb provides a useful analysis, but fulminating against the two-headed demon of neocons and liberal humanitarian interventionists smacks of the kind of mythmaking that he is denouncing.

He continues: “Once this terrible duo starts tossing out words like ‘slaughter‘ and ‘genocide,’ the media goes crazy. Then, the chorus begins to sing of heartless inaction by the U.S. president, blaming him for the deaths. White House common sense crumbles into insanity. The reason why neither President Obama nor his coalition partners in Britain and France can state a coherent goal for Libya is that none of them have any central interest in the outcome there. It is only when a nation has a clear vital interest that it can state a clear objective for war. They've all simply been carried away by their own rhetoric.”

Here Gelb’s points are well taken. America has no vital interest in what is happening in Libya. It cannot articulate a real goal beyond the elimination of the tyrant. It does not seem to have a plan beyond the next few days. It has not collected enough “hard evidence” about what is happening. It does not know whom it is fighting for. And it does not know what the most desirably outcome is, beyond making the president look like a leader.

How did we get into this mess? Gelb says that policymakers are looking at events through the framework of literary and historical analogies. When you do not know enough to know what is going on in reality, you fall back on narratives.

But what is the alternative? What would it all look like if our leaders were not being led around by a narrative? It would, as I have occasionally mentioned, look like a game.

As George Friedman points out, when you are playing  foreign policy with the grownups, you are taking sides.

Given his extensive understanding of the history and geopolitics of Libya, Friedman will serve as the best guide through the realities of the situation. He is also best placed to critique the narratives that everyone is using to interpret events.

In his essay today he begins with an overview: “Beginning with Tunisia, spreading to Egypt and then to the Arabian Peninsula, the last two months have seen widespread unrest in the Arab world. Three assumptions have been made about this unrest. The first was that it represented broad-based popular opposition to existing governments, rather than representing the discontent of fragmented minorities — in other words, that they were popular revolutions. Second, it assumed that these revolutions had as a common goal the creation of a democratic society. Third, it assumed that the kind of democratic society they wanted was similar to European-American democracy, in other words, a constitutional system supporting Western democratic values.”

Friedman then explains how our readings of events have come to take place within the framework of a narrative: “Nevertheless, a narrative on what has happened in the Arab world has emerged and has become the framework for thinking about the region. The narrative says that the region is being swept by democratic revolutions (in the Western sense) rising up against oppressive regimes. The West must support these uprisings gently. That means that they must not sponsor them but at the same time act to prevent the repressive regimes from crushing them.”

He continues: “According to the narrative, what happened in Libya was another in a series of democratic uprisings, but in this case suppressed with a brutality outside the bounds of what could be tolerated…. In the narrative being told, Libya was no longer an isolated tyranny but part of a widespread rising — and the one in which the West’s moral integrity was being tested in the extreme. Now was different from before.

“But it would be an enormous mistake to see what has happened in Libya as a mass, liberal democratic uprising. The narrative has to be strained to work in most countries, but in Libya, it breaks down completely.”

While the Obama administration pretends that the Gadhafi administration has lost all credibility, Friedman offers a cogent critique: “One of the parts of the narrative is that the tyrant is surviving only by force and that the democratic rising readily routs him. The fact is that the tyrant had a lot of support in this case, the opposition wasn’t particularly democratic, much less organized or cohesive, and it was Gadhafi who routed them.”

But whose side are we now on? Friedman‘s analysis is not encouraging: “In fact, the West is now supporting a very diverse and sometimes mutually hostile group of tribes and individuals, bound together by hostility to Gadhafi and not much else. It is possible that over time they could coalesce into a fighting force, but it is far more difficult imagining them defeating Gadhafi’s forces anytime soon, much less governing Libya together.”

To clarify the larger point about taking sides in a contest, Friedman writes: “Whenever you intervene in a country, whatever your intentions, you are intervening on someone’s side. In this case, the United States, France and Britain are intervening in favor of a poorly defined group of mutually hostile and suspicious tribes and factions that have failed to coalesce, at least so far, into a meaningful military force. The intervention may well succeed. The question is whether the outcome will create a morally superior nation. It is said that there can’t be anything worse than Gadhafi. But Gadhafi did not rule for 42 years because he was simply a dictator using force against innocents, but rather because he speaks to a real and powerful dimension of Libya.”

To me this sounds like a welcome call for sobriety.


Anonymous said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Bombing Libya

This all falls into my tried and true axiom....

If it's bad for America, Obama will do it.

How is bombing Libya 'bad' for America?

Removing Gadaffi from power will allow for another nation-state to slide into the hands of Islamists.

Watch what's going on in Egypt. Yes. The peoples' referendum of last week calls for an open election in September. Guess who is likely to come out in control. Three guesses. First two don't count....

The same is likely to happen in Libya. Not that I'm a fan of Gadaffi, but Islamists in charge?


[A leader who doesn't hesitate before he sends his nation into battle is not fit to be a leader. - Golda Meir]

Anonymous said...

Given my relatively limited knowledge of foreign policy and geopolitics

I do have knowledge of foreign policy and geopolitics. I submit the following facts:

1) France, Greece, and particularly Italy get a great deal of oil from Libya.

2) Qaddafi is blowing up the oil terminals, piplines and transfer points to hold power.

3) The International Monetary Fund (IMF) along with France and Germany have loaned Greece and Italy a shitload of money to save the Euro

4) If Italy and Greece and France end up paying lots of money for oil, Italy and Greece cannot pay back a faltering France who will also pay lots for oil making them an economic basket case as well.

5) The US, UK, France and Germany put up the money for the IMF to bail out Southern Europe (who get lots of oil from Libya).

6) The US, UK and N. Europe have no choice but to stabilize Libyan oil prices threatened by Qadaffi.

7) War for oil! We have no economic choice.

Now opinion: In the good old functional world (prior to The Great Incompetence) we, the UK and whomever we chose would have supported and armed a tribe of our choice with advisors and air-support to gain control of the oil resources. Win.

8) This is an honest war for oil for economic survival.

9) Obama and Hillary will fuck this up, sink Southern Europe and cause an economic crisis.

10) The Qathaffa tribe of Bedou and it's leader, al Qathaffi will ha, ha, ha, laugh at them from Bedouin tents in the desert as oil seeps between their spatulate toes.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Gray, for the added information. I haven't seen anyone discuss how the Libya situation might impact the European financial crisis, but I agree with you that there is a connection.

And, I also suspect that it is going to lead to a rather unhappy ending.