“Vote for a Republican,” my grandfather used to say, “and you get a depression. Vote for a Democrat and you get a war.” That seemed like a pretty good rule of thumb in the twentieth century: Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover gave us depressions, and Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy (with an assist from Lyndon Johnson) all gave us wars.
Then came the twenty first century and all bets were off. George W. Bush gave us two wars and a depression; President Obama has already presided over two slack economic years and now seems bent on giving us his first war.
It’s not that the President suffered from a war shortage, with two inherited conflicts (both of which I supported and continue to believe the US must fight) from his predecessor. He escalated the one in Afghanistan and has followed George W. Bush’s proposed timetable in Iraq. Now he has committed US forces to a third conflict in the Middle East in ways that eerily echo the last administration.
President George W. Bush prepares to fly to Iraq in June 2003 (Wikimedia)
This President is, to be sure, doing what he can to distinguish his policies from a Bush administration he vociferously opposed when running for office. With open support from the Arab League, a vote from the Security Council and the support of France (though not of Germany, which also abstained at the Security Council), President Obama has a broader international mandate for action in Libya than President Bush had for Iraq. And President Obama understands one thing that President Bush never quite did: that American power works best when others perceive us as reluctant rather than over-eager to act. Getting the French and the British to take the lead won’t legitimize the military campaign in the eyes of Islamic militants, but letting others step out in front sometimes in not a bad thing for an American president to do.
Yet when it comes right down to it, this President’s approach is not all that different from the last administration’s on matters of peace and war. Military assisted regime change as a solution to humanitarian abuses perpetrated by a government with a history of terrorism linked to a firm belief that more democracy in the Arab world will lead to a more stable region: this is much more Paul Wolfowitz than Colin Powell.
A certain pattern seems to be emerging in this President’s foreign policy process. On the one hand, he is instinctively drawn to the cool logic of the Jeffersonian realists who believe that the safest and wisest course for the United States is to draw in our horns and make peace with decline. If he could design the world from scratch, he would build one where the United States had a much smaller military budget and a much shorter list of strategic international interests. No drone strikes, no confrontations with Iran, no troops in combat overseas and no prisoners at Guantanamo: just the peaceful construction of high speed rail, the implementation of the health legislation and a focus on education.
But when it is time to choose, this President consistently chooses a more active course. He would rather not think about Iraq, but if he must, he will stick to George W. Bush’s withdrawal plans. He would rather not have a war in Afghanistan, but since he has one he will escalate the drone strikes and step up troop levels. He would very much have preferred the Libyan situation to resolve itself without American participation, but forced to choose between action and doing nothing, he acts. He listens to the realists and makes them feel important — but at least since their ideas on how to handle Israel went so badly wrong, he doesn’t seem to take their advice.
I hope the Iranians are paying close attention, by the way. This President is much more likely to pull the trigger than they may think.
If the realists and this President are slowly drifting apart, the President is getting important support from some of the same people who supported George Bush in Iraq until the going got tough. Some use the term “chicken hawk” to describe hawks who haven’t served in the military; the real chicken hawks in my view are the many politicians who are all for the use of force before the shooting starts but turn tail and seek cover once the war turns out to be hard. Senator John Kerry is a classic example; he has plenty of colleagues in the Senate and beyond who voted for both the Iraq and Afghan wars while they were popular, and then blamed Bush for everything that went wrong when life got hard.
These reminted humanitarian hawks will drop Obama and his Libyan war in a heartbeat should things go wrong. They are loud but not serious about war; they are too callow about the risks of war before we get in, and too callow and glib about the cost of defeat once the war starts. They feel more acutely than they think; they feel humanitarian anguish when dictators slaughter their people and advocate unnecessary war. Pretty soon they will feel the horror, the waste and the political unpopularity of war and conclude — as so many did in Iraq — that no price is too high to pay to bring the war to an end, however inglorious and chaotic.
President Obama beware: If US troops are fighting in Libya in 2012 the ‘humanitarian hawks’ will likely be out campaigning against you in New Hampshire. It’s emphatically not a good sign that these weak-winged humanitarian hawks seem to have a lot of weight in Obama’s councils. There are no weaker pillars on which a wartime president can lean, no less trustworthy allies when the going gets tough.
Right now in the heat of righteous indignation, the humanitarian hawks are overlooking the contradictions in the President’s approach. Yemen and Bahrain are up to some nasty tricks too; why aren’t we planning to bomb them? These days our noble humanitarian hawks wave their hands in contemptuous dismissals of such parallels; if the Libyan crisis morph into a nasty war they will use these comparisons to attack the policies which they now urge on the White House. Ask the members of the Johnson and Bush administrations who went through exactly this kind of critique from former proponents of their wars.
Rebels hoist a Libyan flag in Brega, Libya in early March. Gaddafi’s forces have since recaptured the city. (CNN)
But all that said, President Obama has climbed out on a limb and it is not easy to see how he can avoid a choice between a humiliating climb down or an open ended commitment to what could quickly become our third simultaneous Middle Eastern war. He has talked himself into a corner and we must hope he can climb out of it as deftly as possible.
Part of the problem is timing; by waiting for the cumbersome wheels of international diplomacy to turn, President Obama gained important international legitimacy but lost valuable time. A week ago, momentum was with the rebels and the declaration of a no-fly zone might have broken the will of Gaddafi insiders to defend the regime. (In fairness to the President, one should observe again that what much of the world saw as the excessive eagerness of the Bush administration to go to war has created a real foreign policy problem for his successor. Like it or not, the United States must try harder to convince world opinion that we aren’t thirsting for new wars in the Muslim world.)
Another problem is the gap between the UN resolution (which calls on Gaddafi to refrain from massacring the people of Libya) and President Obama’s stated objective of, well, regime change in Libya. “Gaddafi must go,” the President has repeatedly said.
Any outcome that leaves Gaddafi in office will be a defeat for the United States, but it is far from clear that the establishment of no-fly and no-drive zones plus air strikes will bring Gaddafi down. What does Obama do if the no-fly and no-drive zones and the airstrikes don’t work?
More, the political objectives of the UN resolution are unclear. The resolution aims to ban Gaddafi attacks on rebels, but doesn’t call for removing him from office. Literally interpreted, this amounts to a call for an informal partition of Libya into pro- and anti-Gaddafi portions with foreign air forces keeping the peace between them. This hardly sounds like a recipe for long term stability — or even for resolving the crisis if Gaddafi refuses to stand down.
If there is a guiding strategic vision at work here (a big if, given the number of countries involved in designing and pushing the resolution), the plan seems to be for air strikes to stop Gaddafi’s progress on the ground and to degrade the morale of regime loyalists in the hope that the regime would crumble away. Should that fail the backup appears to be that over the somewhat longer term massive military and political aid to the rebels would help them take over the whole country without direct participation of foreign ground troops, even as tightening sanctions reduced Gaddafi’s access to fuel, weapons and bribe money. I would not call this a bad plan — and it might be the best that could be devised under the circumstances — but it is, on the face of it, filled with risk.
Those of us outside the government have no way of knowing what intelligence the President and his top aides used to shape their final decision. Clearly the administration took its time and aired the question thoroughly. As in the (Bill) Clinton years, an activist Secretary of State pushed a reluctant Pentagon towards war. When that happens (as opposed to when a gung-ho military drags the civilians toward war) one can usually be sure that the arguments against intervention have been thoroughly vetted.
At this point, we must live in hope: hope that the President and his team know what they are doing, and hope that an international show of force will bring a better future to Libya (which means a future with no Gaddafis in it) without further bloodshed.
Alternatively, if the Libyan rebels with help from Egypt and NATO can arm and organize themselves well enough to take advantage of Gaddafi’s immobility and isolation to defeat the regime on the field of battle, that would also in the long run likely be a better outcome for Libya than the bloody restoration of the Great Loon.
Let us hope and pray that all goes well and that the Gaddafi and his sons fall before more blood is shed. But make no mistake about it: President Obama is taking big risks here and if things go wrong there will be few Republicans or Democrats willing to help him.