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Published on: March 30, 2011
The Shores of Tripoli: Our Latest Wilsonian War

It’s still much too soon to tell how America’s Libya liberation venture will work out.  The international coalition is shaky; the UN mandate is dubious; air power has frequently disappointed those who trusted that it alone can win wars; political support in the US is shaky; the Great Loon of Libya, a statesman in the […]

It’s still much too soon to tell how America’s Libya liberation venture will work out.  The international coalition is shaky; the UN mandate is dubious; air power has frequently disappointed those who trusted that it alone can win wars; political support in the US is shaky; the Great Loon of Libya, a statesman in the hallowed tradition of Idi Amin, is as cunning as he is daffy; Libya’s fragile unity may crumble as the tribes and clans turn on one another; the rebels are poorly armed and poorly organized; some of them may in fact be experienced international terrorists.

For the record, I hope it all works out.  I want the government to fall, the Great Loon to flap away into inglorious exile somewhere dismal and dull, and I want the rebels, with help from NATO and the Arab League, to set up a workable government that gives Libya’s people a chance to reinvent their country and spreads the oil wealth around.  (I would also like a pony.)  I think we are out on a limb here and I wish the president had found the time to get some congressional backing up front, but we are where we are and the best we can do now is to muddle on through.

We will, I very much hope, be lucky enough to come out of this Wilsonian war in Libya with a decent result.  What follows, though, will not be a Wilsonian peace.  The Libyan adventure is a lot of things: a noble effort to protect innocent civilians from horrifying goons, an experiment in a new kind of indirect American leadership, a last desperate throw of the dice by a hyperactive French president whose people increasingly loathe him, an attempt by flustered Arab establishmentarians to get on the right side of popular fury, a demonstration of Britain’s enduring if tortured moralism, a slugging match in the sand, and a nailbiting distraction for a White House that has repeatedly failed to convince voters that it is ‘focused like a laser’ on the economy and has much more to lose if this goes bad than it has to win if things work.

But there is one thing it won’t be, even if it “works”: the start of a new age of multilateral cooperation under the rule of law.  The UN-blessed response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait failed to start the new age of peace, collective security and law; similarly the liberation of Libya is a fluke not a trend.

Coalition Aircraft in Iraq, 1991 (Wikipedia/DoD)

Let’s start with the UN Security Council resolution that set the whole thing up.  Russia and China were unhappy enough with the idea that the UN could authorize an attack on a member government to challenge its domestic policy that they abstained.  Hardly a surprise — both governments can easily imagine circumstances under which they would have to get down and dirty with domestic malcontents, and should Russia need to kill some more Chechens or China spill some more blood in Tienanmien Square some day, they don’t want a bunch of interfering busybodies poking around.  But Qaddafi is such an unattractive figure, his threats were so blood curdling, and, perhaps not least, the prospect that the western powers might overreach and expose themselves was so deliciously attractive that they decided to sit back and let the West give war a chance.

They are probably not going to be this cooperative next time.  By the time American, French and British lawyers and diplomats finished stretching the resolution, it was hard to see what activities were banned.  NATO could not only impose a no fly zone and intervene to protect civilians under actual attack; it apparently believes it has a legal right to recognize rebels as the legitimate government, market their oil, sell them arms, and attack any Libyan forces anywhere in the country with any weapons they choose without regard to the danger those forces pose to civilians in the short term — and to continue the operation pretty much at will.  Even ground forces might be permissible — as long as they don’t call themselves an occupying army.  Having sold the resolution to the Russians and Chinese as a compromise measure that circumscribed their freedom of action, the allies have interpreted it to give them carte blanche for virtually any actions one can imagine.

All very well, and Gaddafi deserves everything he gets, but how willing will Russia and China be to let the next broadly worded resolution get through the Council?  Will they be so awed by the western spirit of morality and law that they sit on their hands while new resolutions against anti-western tyrants sail through the Council? Or will they start insisting on much tougher safeguards and guarantees under threats of new vetoes?

France only came along on this ride for some special reasons, none of which were particularly idealistic.  President Sarkozy is a riverboat gambler on a long losing streak; his party just got whacked in local elections, and polls show him failing to get into the second round of voting as his re-election campaign nears.  France’s ongoing loss of power to Germany in the European Union and the accelerating decline of its global influence deeply worry the French.  Libya is right on France’s door step — meaning both that France cares about what happens there and that it is close enough for France’s increasingly overstretched and underfunded military to reach.  It is next door to Algeria, a country that as an economic partner and a major source of immigrants is of vital concern to the French; it is not, the French reason, a bad thing to show the North Africans that France remains a force to be reckoned with.  Meanwhile, the French are still trying to recover the ground they lost early in the Arab revolutionary year, when French diplomacy unambigously backed the despots in Tunisia and Egypt.

France has not changed religions; it still prays at the shrine of Charles de Gaulle, not the temple of Woodrow Wilson.  French national interest favors this particular intervention, but in future questions of this kind, France will be as prickly and as, well, selfish as ever.  Note to all tyrants in French speaking Africa: relax.  As long as you keep Paris sweet, the UN Security Council is not going to interfere with your ongoing programs of looting and dissident killing.

The Arab League and the African Union are also getting an education in just how freely the western powers will interpret a mandate — when they can get one.  Give the old imperialists an inch of legal standing and they’ll take a mile of turf.  They will say anything to get you to sign on, and then they will do exactly what they had planned all along.  My guess is that this experience will not increase the appetite of Arab and African governments for new western mandates in new crises.

The Libyan effort is also not going to be the start of a new era of liberal internationalism in American politics.  The dirty truth behind the Libyan campaign is that if only the Wilsonians supporting this war it wouldn’t be happening.

Human Rights Watch can’t start wars on its own.  Wilsonian liberal internationalists need friends to start wars.  Gaddifi, unlike most despots, has been generous enough to provide them. In particular, Gaddafi, like Saddam Hussein and the Iranian mullahs but unlike most other despots around the world, has become a dangerous enemy to millions of American Jacksonians who think liberal internationalism is just a synonym for clueless professors flapping their lips.

Attacking Gaddafi is a political possibility because Jacksonians see him as a terrorist, because they care about oil and because the COFKATGWOT (the currently nameless ‘conflict formerly known as the global war on terror’) has fixed their attention on the Middle East.  Jacksonians have never forgiven Gaddafi for the Lockerbie bombing attack, and even before that there were plenty of people who thought that the only problem with Ronald Reagan’s airstrikes against the Great Loon (unsanctioned by the UN or any other international body and roundly denounced by many Wilsonians at the time) was that they didn’t kill him.  Anger, fear and the conflation of Middle Easterners with terrorism also fuels public support for the Libyan operation.  Without 9/11 and Lockerbie, the political resistance to this war would have been much stronger and the White House political calculations would have been very different.

On top of that is the oil question.  While there are a lot of Americans who think war for oil is immoral, there are plenty more who think that oil, that necessary driver of our economy and the condition of our prosperity, is one of the few things worth fighting about — and a much better reason for war than helping to put one gang of thieves in while kicking another one out.

El Saharara Oil Feild in Libya (Wikimedia)

Gaddafi is a uniquely vulnerable target; few other despots have done as much to draw the ire of the average American as he has.  Don’t expect many American bombers over Myanmar, Congo, Zimbabwe or Ivory Coast anytime soon.

The Wilsonians now have their war; they also now have their president.  Barack Obama’s inner Woodrow Wilson has clearly won out; he has nailed his colors to the mast of a liberal international foreign policy.  The cautious Jeffersonian realists have lost one policy battle after another in this administration.  Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn law (“if you break it, you own it”) has been cast to the winds.  A president who won his party’s nomination as the most consistent opponent of unpopular interventions abroad has become an apostle of liberal war.  Not since Saul went to Damascus has there been such a dramatic conversion.

Liberal Wilsonians have a tough row to hoe in this wicked world.  The kind of wars they support — humanitarian interventions blessed by the UN — are generally speaking deeply unpopular in the United States.  Most non-Wilsonians (a substantial majority of the population) loathe the idea of American ground forces getting involved in these conflicts, and this political reality ties Wilsonians into knots.

Abroad, international support for these missions only rarely appears — like a January robin in Vermont.  Even now Wilsonians can only get their way in Libya by stretching the meaning of the narrow UN resolution.

We have had Wilsonian wars before and I have no doubt we will have them again.  You can, sometimes, wage Wilsonian war.  What you cannot do, at least not yet and probably never, is build a Wilsonian peace.

Woodrow Wilson discovered this almost a century ago.  He could fight a “war to end war” and make the world safe for democracy; but a fatal combination of American political resistance at home and the cold calculations of national self interest by leaders abroad thwarted his attempt at Versailles to create a new global order on Wilsonian lines.

Like Wilson, President Obama is going to find it easier to fight for humanitarian ideals than to make them prevail.

show comments
  • John Barker

    I am betting on the pony.

  • Peter

    It looks like Europe’s need for oil, especially France & the UK,is a significant component in this war.

    As for the U.S., Libya more than likely is actually a misguided ploy for Obama 2012 re-election campaign.

    You can hope until the cows come home, Mr. Mead, but the odds of this mess turning out well is slim to none.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    As a Jacksonian I have nothing against fighting a war, if it is necessary, and if it’s for Victory. But, I don’t think we have a dog in this fight. Let the Islamists fight it out with the Tyrants all over the Moslem world I say. Who every wins will be much reduced, weaker, and easy pickings if we should decide to support a Democracy Movement, or demand an election for recognizing the new government. Even if all we get is “One Man, One Vote, One Time” that is a Victory for us, and a step forward for those Cultures. A vote is recognition by those cultures that only Democracy can confer Legitimacy.
    We sowed the SEED, and now we are reaping the harvest in the Middle East.
    I said at the time, that installing a Democracy in Iraq was one of the greatest strategic maneuvers in Human history. It was an example of cultural judo of the first water, putting a naturally corruption reducing Democracy in what was once the most cosmopolitan Arab nation, and its central location, was the best response to 9/11.
    Bush is going to gain huge credit for this eventually, as he should.
    Everyone is worried about the Moslem Brotherhood, and Islamists taking control from the Tyrants. But, I wonder how much credit they will get in the polling booth, as I seriously doubt that they will be able to take control without a vote. And even if it’s the case of “One man, One vote, Onetime” that is still a Victory for us, as it is a Cultural recognition on their part, that only a Democratic vote can confer Legitimacy.
    We Win!!!

  • WigWag

    What is astounding to me is how quickly Obama moved against Libya while he has been so reluctant to offer even rhetorical support to Iranian and Syrian dissidents who face regimes as bad as Gaddafi’s. As Secretary of Defense Gates stated unambiguously, there are no vital American interests at stake vis a vis Libya while the fall of either or both of the Iranian and Syrian regimes would represent a dramatic strategic victory for the United States. As usual, the Obama Administration is hopelessly confused and downright incompetent.

    I just learned from Steve Clemons’ blog (the Washington Note) that Professor Mead has joined an “Iran Strategy Taskforce” launched by Freedom House and the Progressive Policy Institute. In addition to Mead, other members of the taskforce include: Josh Block, Ken Pollack, Will Marshall, Ray Takeyh, Rob Satloff, Larry Diamond and David Kramer.

    According to Clemons, “the focus of the task force will be to increase the spotlight on Iran’s dismal human rights record and to raise awareness about Iran’s conventional weapons capacity and over-its-border misdeeds supporting non-state terror movements.”

    I think there has been an overemphasis on the danger of Iran’s nuclear program; it’s dangerous but not necessarily the most dangerous thing about Iran. Iran’s belligerence and its support of terrorism represent at least as much of a threat in the short run as its nuclear program does.

    Professor Mead, I hope you will blog about your experience on the Taskforce and share with your loyal readers at “Via Meadia” the results of the taskforce’s work.

    As for Obama, attacking Libya with tomahawk missiles while he refuses to offer even rhetorical support to Iranians yearning to be free can only be described as deluded. Bombing Gadaffi while your Secretary of State calls Bashir Assad a reformer is a sign of pure idiocy.

  • Luke Lea
  • Bruce

    How do we decide when and where to stop facists from inducing humanitarian disasters? There are many more out there besides Libya. Trump made an excellent point. The Europeans and Chinese benefit from Libyan oil. Why aren’t they paying us? In the meantime, we fight a war with money we don’t have against a country that is no threat to us.

  • vanderleun

    “I think we are out on a limb here and I wish the president had found the time to get some congressional backing up front, but we are where we are and the best we can do now is to muddle on through.”

    Well,

    HAIL to thee, blithe spirit!
    Bird thou never wert—
    That from heaven or near it
    Pourest thy full heart
    In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

    Somewhere in that vast mound of merde thou are sure to find thy pony.

  • nadine

    Obama’s speech last Monday was utterly incoherent. All I could make out was that Obama didn’t want pictures on TV making him look bad. If there is an Obama doctrine, it seems to be to kick allies and coddle enemies. The only regimes who are quite safe from American pressure are our open enemies.

    Obama won’t even SAY he supports Syrian demonstrators against Assad. Nor will he say a word for the disappeared leaders of the Green Movement in Iran. But he’ll bomb Qaddafi, who we were cooperating with until the week before last. Without any clear objective, without a strategy, and without any consultation with Congress. Just imagine what the left would be saying if Obama had an (R) after his name.

  • CatoRenasci

    You left out the part about the Constitutional requirement that Obama get Congressional approval before going to war.

  • Doug in San Diego

    I have several issues with this war.

    First, didn’t the Arab League, and all the other proponents of the no-fly zone understand that it starts with demolishing air defense command and control? This may not have been obvious in the wake of Desert Storm, because it was accomplished before the ground war. It’s not like we were ever going to fly planes over Libya with electronic warfare as their only defenses, and just hope they never got shot down.

    Second, what’s the end-game here? We’re not going to do no-fly forever, and a stalemate is possible under the purported rules of engagement.

    Most importantly, what message does this send to other tyrants who get religion, and get rid of their WMD’s? Despite being despicable and loony (plus Lockerbie, etc.), Gaddafi gave up his WMD’s. What the West supposedly granted him was welcome him back to realm of supposedly civilized countries. Unless he started interfering in other countries again, we should have lived with this bargain with the devil (like we have put up with Castro since the bargain that ended the Cuban missile crisis); otherwise why would Pyongyang or Tehran ever give up their WMD’s. To me, this is the biggest issue.

    Finally, what’s our big rush to help all these autocratic regimes be overthrown, only for these countries to fall into the hands of Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda sympathizers. Of course, most of the protesters that got things going weren’t from the MB or AQ, but their followers are the best organized, and have the most intense backing. They have already hijacked the revolution in Egypt. Next thing you know, Morocco will be all that stands between the EU, and the dreams of the MB and AQ of reconstituting a modern-day caliphate, ready to re-conquer Al_Andalus. Yet, right now, some of the fighters we’re supplying in Libya are AQ.

  • gerry

    This war will go badly, if only because John Kerry is supporting it so far.

  • Buck O’Fama

    Gosh, the lessons of history n’ stuff. Unlike that idiot Bush, I thought Obama and his people were soooo smart and knew all that already….

  • Prologue

    I suspect Jacksonian Libertarian is right about the long term corrosive effects of Iraq 2003 on stagnant Middle Eastern culture. Sometimes you have to take the long view. I read once that Kissinger dined with Cho En-Lai in Bejing prior to Nixon’s official visit. He asked Cho if he thought the French Revolution was a success or a failure. Cho responded: “It’s too soon to tell.”

  • RPD

    @ Luke Lea, my guess is that COFKATGWOT means:

    Conflict Operation Formerly Known As The Global War On Terror

  • Fredf

    Obama may be smarter than he looks. Aid the rebels enough to level the playing field but not enough to give them a decisive advantage. That keeps those animals too busy slaughtering each other to worry about slaughtering us.

  • Lone Conservative in VT

    I hate to be the one to take you to task for your metaphor of “a January robin in Vermont”. Such sightings are actually common, many of these birds have found a welcome and tasty winter environment here…no resaon to migrate. A more apt metaphor might be “a popular conservative Senator from VT”.

  • David from Boston

    Luke Lea, thanks for that link. Sad that we have fallen into the same trap.

  • Russ

    While I’m no fan of Wilsons’ blatantly fascist domestic policies, the dirty truth is that he was doing very well until he got levelled by the great Influenza.

    Which, in a way, only supports Prof. Meade’s thesis — it IS possible to forge a Wilsonian peace. But only if you’re SO dominant that you could have done it all by yourself anyway. Pre-sickness Wilson was clearly in a position to dictate terms at Versailles, and was doing so prior to having to withdraw: is it likely that we’ll see any US leader in so strong a position in the future?

  • David Billington

    “What is astounding to me is how quickly Obama moved against Libya while he has been so reluctant to offer even rhetorical support to Iranian and Syrian dissidents who face regimes as bad as Gaddafi’s.” (Wigwag)

    “Obama won’t even SAY he supports Syrian demonstrators against Assad. Nor will he say a word for the disappeared leaders of the Green Movement in Iran. But he’ll bomb Qaddafi, who we were cooperating with until the week before last.” (Nadine)

    I would find this troubling except for the fact that if we encourage dissidents in Syria and Iran right now, and Qaddafi wins, we will have only added to the perception that America is a fountain of empty rhetoric and ineffective action. If we succeed in Libya and a democratic constitution goes into effect in Egypt, our moral support for dissidents in Syria and Iran might then be more effective.

    The question is whether the actions we are taking in Libya are sufficient to bring Qaddafi’s departure. The Arab, NATO, and UN support that we obtained for a more limited operation seems now to be fading. But after only about two weeks I think it is still too soon to judge our actions and those of our allies a failure. We will know soon enough.

    For Republicans and Democrats in Congress, the 60 day grace period allowed under the War Powers Act is a deadline for them to take responsibility, either to approve an on-going war or to end it.

  • Russ

    (testing, had a topical comment on “Wilsonian Pease” list before as accepted from a couple hours ago; it’s not showing. if this goes on, will repost)

  • Jim.

    Here’s a proposed endgame in Libya:

    – The old Colonel abdicates in favor of his son. (Pick your favorite.)
    o The old goat is whisked off to house arrest in a tent in the middle of the Sahara, accompanied by a dozen of the bustiest formerly East Bloc hotties the Internet has to offer.
    – His son immediately:
    o Offers amnesty to most of the rebels.*
    o Reaches out to the rebel leaders with whom he had previously held talks to put together a Constitution
    o Offers to NeoConservative types the heads of those rebels who have fought against America in South Asia.
    *At this point, all of the US’s stated war aims are met – get rid of the Colonel, and stop any genocide. Possible diplomatic coup for Gadfly fils. The other two are to gain the support of (or neutralize) other local and international groups who might otherwise be hostile to this resolution.

    That’s how I imagine they would have tried to play the game back in London in the late 1840’s, anyway.

    Who is happy?
    – Anyone who wants this to be a short war
    – Green-eyeshade types here in America
    – Anyone who thought they were going to die because of this mess

    Who is unhappy?
    – Anyone who thinks that American power should be able to make things immediately perfect
    – Anyone who wanted this to be a drain on America for the foreseeable future
    – Anyone who wanted this to be a drain on Obama for the foreseeable future
    – The hotties, at least until they find a way to get the old ghoul to happily keel over of a heart attack
    – Anyone who figures this is too good a fate for the old ghoul
    – The rebels who have fought against America in South Asia and want a chance for Sharia in Libya, who have probably heard of the Bolsheviks
    – Any naïve students who wanted to fight this out (rather than submit to another Gadfly), students who may or may not have heard of the Mensheviks
    … but I’m OK with all the unhappy people, because I consider myself to be part of groups 1 and 2 of the happy people, above.

    Known unknowns
    – The belief of the Libyan people in hereditary leadership
    – The character of Gadfly fils –
    o I’ve read that he thinks of the rebels as criminals, and that he had at one point worked on a constitution with one of the rebels. But that’s it. (Might even have been different sons, there.)
    – What Gibbon called “the chance of war”
    o Who’s going to get ground to dust before the shooting stops?
    – The disposition and/or position of the official government army and police forces

    Yeah, this is all a little bit too pat, too-clever-by-half, but it’s not as flippant as the “East Bloc hotties” comment implies. Eh, it’s the best way I could fit the pieces I know about together.

  • Jim.

    Look, if France has good intelligence on the state of the rebels and of the Libyan army, it sees a compelling French national interest in going in, they’re set up for a timely intervention, and it doesn’t negatively impact American interests, then godspeed to them.

    Obama was president. He attempted to set the doctrine and precedent that the US president should consult the UN instead of our own Congress, and that our interventions should be arbitrarily frequent, per a set of opaque “humanitarian” concerns.

    If a Republican were president, they would have had the chance to set up a different type of precedent entirely — one where the French get the green-light from the US to go ahead and pursue a French-led humanitarian / regime change / sphere of influence sort of military effort.

    Obama’s precedent: US servility, US financial responsibility, arbitrary and potentially unlimited exercise of US power (controlled by someone *other than* the US.) Overall, a strategic drain on the US.

    Alternative precedent — US leadership, US authority, (you want to go to war, you clear it with *us* first); reinforced precedent for Nations acting in their own interests (if the French do it, how can you criticize us?); precedent for European nations taking on the expense and effort of military actions instead of dumping it on the US.

    We could have put together a strategy that was good for the US. Obama’s strategy is downright awful for us.

  • WeR1

    There is no Constitutional requirement to get Congressional approval for a kinetic military operation.

  • Peter

    It’s hard to argue that there weren’t some compelling reasons to go into Libya. What is impossible to ignore is that once we went in there was no end-game, and if there were, if O’bummer’s tactic was to publicly say we did not intend to pursue regime change even as we were, then the follow-through has been woefully inadequate.

    It would have been quite simple, just a few days ago, to have continued pursuing the Libyan forces attacking the rebels and destroyed them enough to make them useless. We could have used the ineffective UN resolution to say that it was the only way we could ensure that civilians would continue to be protected. Now we have put ourselves in a terrible position because we were too timid and too deferential to the precise wording of the UN resolution. I’m sure Mr. O could give us a lecture on fine legal points of why that was necessary.

    The other Powell Doctrine was not mentioned, that is in war to set a goal and go in with overwhelming force to achieve it. Ah, yes, but of course in Lybia it is not a war and the goal is to be able keep the coalition together and keep repeating, this is not Iraq, this will not be Iraq, this is not. . .etc.

  • Aeolus

    So you’re saying that as China’s ballooning military and economic might threatens to upset the balance of power in the most important strategic theater on earth, and as America’s unsustainable fiscal situation threatens our viability as a nation, we’ve decided that bombing a group of bad guys so that another group of bad guys can take power in a country where we have no vital strategic interests is the best use of our nation’s focus and wealth?

    Yay! Go America!

  • john werneken

    To heck with the United Nations. It’s only real functions are as a reasonably inept, grossly corrupt charity, and aq fig leaf fot national poloticians in various countries, including ours. I mean the idea of BS indstead of WAR makes some sense, even Churchil thought so (‘jaw jaw jaw os better than wah wah wah’). But that’s about it.

    Liberal Internationalism is indeed a synonym for clueless professors flapping their lips.

    Hopefully future Presidents will make it reasonably clear that UN approval is not only unnessary but actually couter-productive, except in those rare circumstances where a war can be concluded before the temporary domestic political boost that may accrue to the American administration has worn off.

  • Lea Luke

    Speaking of COFKATGWOT, here’s another prophecy written pre-9/11:

    http://tinyurl.com/6ke2pj6

  • WigWag

    “I would find this troubling except for the fact that if we encourage dissidents in Syria and Iran right now, and Qaddafi wins, we will have only added to the perception that America is a fountain of empty rhetoric and ineffective action…” (David Billington)

    Whose “perceptions” is it, David, that you believe we should be worried about?

    I can tell you the “perceptions” that I’m worried about. I worry about the perceptions of millions of Iranian dissidents who must be wondering why the United States is so obsessed with the civil rights of the Libyan people while it ignores the human rights of the Iranian people. The Iranian Greens must be wondering why Obama is willing to respond to Gaddafi’s abuses with tomahawk missiles but he’s not even willing to respond to the abuses of the Revolutionary Guards with harsh rhetoric.

    I also worry about the perceptions of Sunni Syrians and Kurdish Syrians who must be scratching their heads when they hear John Kerry and Hillary Clinton refer to Bashar Assad as a “reformer.”

    Three other groups whose perceptions I worry about are the Lebanese Christians, Druze and Sunnis. What do you think they must be thinking about an American President who returns an ambassador to Damascus at the same time that everyone in the world knows that the Syrians and their Hezbollah allies ordered the assassination of Rafic Hariri? I also wonder what they think when they hear Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, John Brennan, insist that the United States should be engaging the so-called moderate elements in Hezbollah; the one faction in Lebanon that maintains its own militia.

    Finally, I wonder about the perceptions of the Israelis who must be very curious about why Obama is so hell-bent on providing self-determination to the Palestinians and Eqyptians while his rhetoric makes clear that self-determination for the Syrians or Iranians is something he’s indifferent to.

  • nperry

    There’s something not right here. It is all well and good to intervene for humanitarian purposes, but the situation just seemed too convenient, too opportunistic, too much an example of Rahm Emmanuel’s “never waste a crisis.”

    So – where are the press conferences given by Obama’s military advisors and spokesmen? When do we get to hear the details? Exactly how many troops and planes have we committed? What units are involved? For how long? And for how much? I’m not a TV watcher, nor a CSPAN or cable news junkie. I read the internet and see nothing coming from Obama’s military people, but a lot of incidental stuff.

    It makes me wonder, makes me suspicious, that something is going on behind closed doors, that if you and I knew, we wouldn’t like it. Most of all, the absence of information willingly shared belies Obama’s vow of transparency. And while I understand politicians break campaign promises, from someone supposedly as principled and idealistic as Obama, it is a breach of trust. It is a breach of trust that this president could not even face his own Congress and his own people, but runs to the UN for approval, so the feeling I (personally) get is we really don’t matter.

  • David Billington

    “I can tell you the “perceptions” that I’m worried about. I worry about the perceptions of millions of Iranian dissidents who must be wondering why the United States is so obsessed with the civil rights of the Libyan people while it ignores the human rights of the Iranian people.” (Wigwag)

    I fail to see how using military force on behalf of the Libyans and rhetoric on behalf of the Iranians acquits us of a double standard. My point is that waiting a few more weeks to resolve the Libyan situation is preferable to inciting uprisings in Syria and Iran while we are still preoccupied with Libya.

    I don’t understand why we need to describe Bashar Assad as a reformer or what reason we have to talk to Hezbollah. But none of this matters as much as the outcome in Libya. If that goes well, we can reaffirm our support for human rights in other countries and have some momentum on the side of what we support. If we make expressions of support for human rights now and then don’t follow through in Libya, the people of the region will conclude quite rightly that our rhetoric is empty.

  • WigWag

    “My point is that waiting a few more weeks to resolve the Libyan situation is preferable to inciting uprisings in Syria and Iran while we are still preoccupied with Libya.” (David Billington)

    It is entirely possible that waiting a few more weeks will render the possibility of helping the Syrians moot.

    There was a window of opportunity to help the Iranians during the massive demonstrations that took place after the rigged elections last year. Instead, Obama decided to do virtually nothing. He didn’t offer logistical support to the Green movement; he didn’t even offer very many kind words for what it was trying to accomplish. He certainly didn’t order up any tomahawk missile strikes. Predictably the moment of maximum vulnerability of the regime passed and it is unclear when, if ever, Iranian dissidents will again have a chance to reform or overthrow their repressive government.

    The demonstrations against Assad and his Baathist regime are taking place in Syria right now. The one thing we know is that Assad won’t be as restrained as Mubarak was in putting down the revolt and we know that the Alawite dominated military and security forces that control the Syrian Government have far more to lose than the Egyptian army did if the Assad regime were to falter. If Obama misses this window of opportunity in Syria it may never return. Revolutionary fervor has a limited lifespan and it comes along only occasionally. If you don’t believe it, think about the optimism that followed the Cedar Revolution and contrast it with the state of Lebanon today.

    By the way, Obama’s blunder in Libya is likely to have the effect of making the behavior of both the Iranian and Syrian regimes even more intractable. The Iranians clearly have a nuclear program and it is possible that the Syrians have a nascent one as well. When Gadaffi gave up his nuclear program it bought him only a temporary reprieve from Western bombardment. Isn’t the message to the Iranians and Syrians (not to mention the North Koreans) that they would be crazy to follow in Gadaffis footsteps and eschew their nuclear weapons programs? Doesn’t the bombardment of Libya make it even more likely that the Iranians will accelerate their program?

    There was certainly a humanitarian interest in protecting the Libyan tribesmen who dislike Gadaffi but the same humanitarian interest exists in both Iran and Syria and the United States has a tremendous strategic interest in seeing these regimes overthrown while everyone admits that we had no strategic interest in Libya one way or the other.

    No one is suggesting that Obama bombard Syria. But there are numerous overt and covert ways that the U.S. could pressure the regime, instead the Obama Administration decided to genuflect to Assad in the crazy hope that this would make him think about reforming his ways. The absurdity of this is hard to overstate.

    And respectfully, David, I still don’t know whose “perceptions” you are worried about. Could it be the increasingly irrelevant and deluded European left or the radical Islamists who are ubiquitous throughout the Muslim world? I just don’t understand why you consider it important what they think.

  • Luke Lea

    Gates’s testimony before Congress yesterday was interesting. Asked whether it were possible we would have any “boots on the ground” in Libya, he answered, “Not while I’m here.”

  • David Billington

    “No one is suggesting that Obama bombard Syria. But there are numerous overt and covert ways that the U.S. could pressure the regime…” (Wigwag)

    The Israelis don’t want us to “genuflect” to Syria but my understanding is that they have urged caution. I would take their view seriously here.

    “Revolutionary fervor has a limited lifespan and it comes along only occasionally. If you don’t believe it, think about the optimism that followed the Cedar Revolution and contrast it with the state of Lebanon today.”

    The Soviet bloc saw uprisings in the 1950s and 1960s that we did not support effectively, but sentiment for revolution in eastern Europe continued. The Middle East is no different. I think you need to take a longer view.

    “And respectfully, David, I still don’t know whose “perceptions” you are worried about. Could it be the increasingly irrelevant and deluded European left or the radical Islamists who are ubiquitous throughout the Muslim world? I just don’t understand why you consider it important what they think.”

    Wigwag, I am concerned about what we did in Iraq after 1991, when we incited the Shias to rise up and then did nothing when Saddam Hussein massacred them. What I care about are the perceptions of innocent people who might expose themselves to gunfire, not apologists for tyranny or anti-American groups outside the region. I do not want to see innocent people rise in revolution with our encouragement unless we are willing and able to defend them in the event that lesser forms of U.S. support are not enough.

    The days are clearly numbered for the tyrannies in the Middle East. I think we ought to focus on Libya and Egypt and help these countries complete their transitions to popular government. If they do, the results will undermine tyrannies elsewhere in the region more effectively than any covert or overt intervention that we might contemplate. If the popular uprisings in Libya and Egypt fail, then I doubt anything else we might do right now will matter, and the region will be unchanged for another decade. But the combination of demographics and politico-economic dysfunction guarantee that the authoritarian regimes in the area cannot endure.

  • WigWag

    “The Soviet bloc saw uprisings in the 1950s and 1960s that we did not support effectively, but sentiment for revolution in Eastern Europe continued. The Middle East is no different. I think you need to take a longer view.” (David Billington)

    The aborted Hungarian Revolution took place in 1956; Hungarians did not win their freedom for 33 more years (1989.) For an excellent first-hand account on the subject I recommend Kati Marton’s “Enemies of the People;” it’s quite riveting.

    Alexander Dubcek and the Prague Spring took place in 1968; Czechs and Slovaks didn’t win their freedom for 21 additional years in 1989.

    It is true that the United States was unable to intervene on behalf of the Hungarians or Czechs because doing so would have risked nuclear war with a belligerent and paranoid Soviet Union.

    But Syria is not Hungary or Czechoslovakia; it isn’t a vassal state of the second most powerful nation on the planet. Syria is a poor, backwards nation with a per capita income of $5,100 per year (111th out of 158 nations ranked by the World Bank). It’s only important allies are a country rocked by internal conflict itself and suffering under an internationally adopted sanctions regime (Iran) and two terrorist groups, Hamas and Hezbollah although perhaps in fairness, Turkey might also be called an ally of Syria these days.

    Moreover, Syria is an ethnic stew whose various tribes and religious subgroups view each other in the best of times with suspicion and fear.

    Syria’s status is precarious enough that rhetorical support and covert measures might actually be enough to cause the Assad regime to crumble; if not, a few well placed missile strikes, certainly far fewer than we are showering on Libya, should be more than enough to get the job done. Personally I doubt Assad’s resolve or staying power; Gadaffi is a mad man; Assad is an optometrist.

    I understand the predicament of the Israelis when it comes to Syria; it’s not unreasonable to prefer the enemy you know to the enemy that you don’t. But a Syria led by Sunni Muslims likely to sympathize with their Sunni co-religionists in Lebanon as opposed to the Shia represented by Amal and Hezbollah is so manifestly in American interests that pushing for the overthrow of Assad is an opportunity that would be tragic to waste. I just don’t share your optimism that if we are patient, another opportunity will soon come along.

    The main obstacle to a success in Syria is that in the United States we are suffering under the leadership of a President who is too feckless and blinded by a bizarre ideology to advocate the overthrow of anyone other than American allies.

    During the Cold War, the only Premier that was ever described as a “reformer” was Gorbachev. Even Khrushchev wasn’t described that way by American Administrations of either political party. Certainly the term “reformer” was never used to describe Stalin, Brezhnev or Andropov. Yet Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry believe that Bashar Assad is a “reformer.”

    Who does Assad remind you more of, David, Brezhnev or Gorbachev?

    ps: Recently on a visit to the Strand used bookstore in New York I picked up a copy of a book entitled “Big Dams and the New Deal Era: A Confluence of Engineering and Politics.” The authors of the book, which I am about to start to read, are listed as David P. Billington and Donald C. Jackson. If it’s not to forward a question, are you the author of that book?

  • David Billington

    “Syria’s status is precarious enough that rhetorical support and covert measures might actually be enough to cause the Assad regime to crumble; if not, a few well placed missile strikes, certainly far fewer than we are showering on Libya, should be more than enough to get the job done. ” (Wigwag)

    I’m not really qualified to assess the practicality of what you propose. We were not able to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1991 with air strikes inside Iraq, though, and his country was as fractious as Syria and in addition had just lost a war. The Syrian regime could be different but if there is reasonable doubt that it would fall to covert action and missile strikes in conjunction with a popular uprising, then I think we must be willing to defend a popular uprising more forcefully before inciting one.

    There is also a strategic question. It would isolate Hezbollah if we were to bring an anti-Shia majority to power in Syria right now, but I wonder how the Shias of Iraq would respond if it appears that we are taking the other side in the wider Sunni-Shia conflict in the region? I would be careful about exchanging Iraq for Syria as an ally, if that is what you are prepared to accept.

    What can be said for your argument is that there is a democratic moment in the Middle East and that sectarian differences might be set aside by newly freed populations that do not want civil war. The Egyptians seemed to want to unite a few weeks ago and a non-sectarian spirit imbued the initial protests in Bahrain. It might be worth our taking greater risks to prevent the flame of freedom from being extinguished. But I think we need to be realistic about the risks and not let anyone we encourage to rise up be massacred for listening to us.

    Thank you for your interest in “Big Dams and the New Deal Era,” but the co-author is my father, not me, although I spent some fascinating time doing research for some of the book. I learned a great deal about how the federal government once did infrastructure investments quickly and efficiently. If you run across a book called “Power Speed and Form,” you’ll find me as a co-author.

  • WigWag

    Thank you, David. I look forward to reading “Big Dams and the New Deal Era” and will look for “Power, Speed and Form.”

    Cheers!

  • Mike M.

    “Gates’s testimony before Congress yesterday was interesting. Asked whether it were possible we would have any “boots on the ground” in Libya, he answered, “Not while I’m here.””

    Gates sounds to me like someone who is on the verge of resigning, and probably would do so now if he could do it honorably and without turning his back on the men under his command.

    I imagine that like many of us, he is probably thoroughly disgusted at liberal Wilsonians like Obama, Kerry, and Hillary Clinton who heap endless scorn upon our military behind closed doors, cut their funding, and kill our advanced weapon systems while at the same time they increase our military responsibilities and send our men and women into one meat grinder after another on behalf of people with little or no gratitude to show for it.

  • Luke Lea

    http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/Labyr

    To summarize, three Defense Dept. insiders with long experience in the weapons procurement process argue that the U.S lacks a rational defense strategy based on a realistic assessment of threats to our national security and that consequently new weapons are designed and procured without reference to their effectiveness or costs. The result is an arsenal that is vastly smaller, more expensive, and less effective than in decades past. There is no field testing of new weapons to assess their capability or suitability to ordinary soldiers under real battlefield conditions. Instead a “politics of fear” (based on unrealistic threat assessments) combined with “political engineering” (making sure the weapons manufacturing process is spread over as many congressional districts as possible) guide procurement decisions. The result is a bloated defense budget (currently 1.2 $Trillion/yr) with little bang for the buck. They call for auditing of the Defense Department — not currently done! — and the application of cost-benefit analysis to all weapons systems.

    Our spending on defense and health care are the two biggest out-of-control items in the federal budget. The first is sacrosanct (Congress rubber-stamps annual Defense Department appropriations with little critical oversight) while neither is subject to rigorous cost-benefit analysis within budgetary constraints. This must change if we are serious balancing the federal budget while maximizing our national security under realistic assumptions.

    For example is the “War on Terror” an appropriate response to the threat posed by small bands of poorly-organized, less-than-competent Islamic fundamentalists on the other side of the world? Are worst-case-scenarios of biological or nuclear attacks by such groups a rational way to ration our defense spending? Was the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center a lucky sucker punch landed in a moment of inattention, or true indication of the strength and sophistication of Islamic terrorist organizations? More generally, is national security strengthened or weakened if we over-react to exaggerated threats?

    Finally, are new state-of-the-art Cold War weapons systems such as Patriot missiles, stealth bombers, new fighter jets with advanced avionics (instead of an adequate supply of already battle-tested close-ground-support aircraft) the best way to spend our limited supply of defense dollars?

  • Jim.

    Hm, I’m seeing noises in the media about Gadfly’s sons trying to cut some kind of deal (possibly as I’ve outlined above). Most media outlets seem to believe that a sufficient rebuttal to that is saying, “But the rebels don’t want those sons in power” so they dismiss the whole thing.

    To which I have to ask: Is the US really going to go all-in to support rebels that are unlikely to have the military wherewithal to hold (and keep) the country, without holding (and keeping) the support of crypto-jihadis?

    Some diplomatic pressure on rebels from the US to accept half a loaf (amnesty, a Constitution limiting but not eliminating the power of the executive) is likely the only thing that will keep us from getting into another Iraq.

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    I also started reading the “Big Dams and the New Deal Era” book and I’m actually enjoying it!

  • David

    There is no Constitutional requirement to get Congressional approval for a kinetic military operation.I totally agree with this opinion.

    David

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