Andrew Sullivan is shocked and appalled that President Obama now seems committed to stretching coalition involvement in Libya beyond the narrow confines of the UN Security Council resolution:
It’s so surreal, so discordant with what the president has told the American people, so fantastically contrary to everything he campaigned on, that I will simply wait for more confirmation than this before commenting further. I simply cannot believe it. I know the president is not against all wars – just dumb ones. But could any war be dumber than this . . . ?
Unfortunately I can’t fault Sullivan too much for being surprised without also faulting myself. Up until March 19, I and many other people were confidently predicting that President Obama wouldn’t intervene in Libya. Yet in fact he has told us over the years, repeatedly, that Libya is precisely the kind of situation that he believes calls for American military engagement.
While I was busy swooning over the Niebuhrian echoes of Obama’s 2009 speech to the Nobel committee in Oslo, I somehow glossed over the fact that he cited the U.S. interventions in the Balkans as a legitimate use of firepower—and not merely for the humanitarian rationale but for democracy promotion as well. I’ll quote the speech at length, so you get a sense that this wasn’t just some passing comment on his part:
The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest. . . .
More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.
I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace. . . .
When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma — there must be consequences. Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy — but there must be consequences when those things fail. . . .
In the American Conservative, Brendan O’Neill had already noted this tendency in candidate Barack Obama way back in 2008. O’Neill’s tone may be a bit over the top, but even when you filter the invective out, all the facts line up so neatly that I’m left asking myself why I didn’t see this coming, too.
But I think Sullivan is compounding this initial naivety with an additional one. He (and not just he, but David Rieff and others, too) seems to believe that it is now and always was feasible to strictly limit this mission a no-fly zone for humanitarian purposes. They seem to be saying that the foolish move was not that we intervened to prevent a massacre (a non-event that now resides in the ethereal realm of the counterfactual—at least for as long as we’re involved), but that we have apparently recast the mission in a regime-change and state-building mould.
The problem with this is what we might call the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of intervention. By intervening, we’ve irreversibly changed the political and military situation; in other words, we’ve become a Libyan political actor in our own right, changing the incentive structure for the belligerent parties.
We only need to look at the course of the war since our intervention to show this principle at work. Very shortly after the West established the no-fly zone, dismantled Qaddafi’s air defenses, and struck his ground forces besieging Benghazi (all of which were necessary components of preventing a massacre), the rebels pressed ahead with a major counteroffensive that took them all the way to the Qaddafi loyalist stronghold of Sirte. Qaddafi’s forces, however, have shown themselves equally capable of adapting to changed circumstances. They have renewed their offensive and are increasingly using civilian vehicles and superior tactics, making it difficult for coalition air assets to identify ground targets without risking civilian casualties. The coalition thus finds itself in a bind: Either it commits to deeper involvement (up to and including ground troops), or it risks the possibility of the rebels being overrun, possibly leading to the massacre the intervention was originally intended to prevent. Our mission, in effect, hinges on the fate of the east Libyan rebel forces. We cannot allow them to be overrun without our risking a humanitarian catastrophe.
The problem is that the rebel forces have a different set of political objectives than we do. Their endgame is the death of the regime (if not also Qaddafi’s head on a pike). And since we can’t afford to let them be overrun, that means that their mission, to a large extent, is ours too. Or, at a minimum, we can’t let them decisively lose.
Of course, it’s possible everything will work out for the best. The rebels win the day with just a tad more NATO airpower; Qaddafi’s regime rots from within; a democratic government springs forth from the North African sands; etc. But I’m not sure we should congratulate ourselves too heartily if things turn out this way. Humanitarian missions like this one are inherently open-ended affairs. We might get lucky and be able to do this one on the cheap, but as any poker player could tell you, getting lucky isn’t the same thing as making the smart play.
It’s possible, even probable, that the President already understands all of this, and that he has been talking out of both sides of his mouth about U.S. intentions in Libya. (Please understand that I don’t think that this kind of hypocrisy is necessarily a bad thing; indeed, it is an indispensable tool of statecraft.) If so, we can at least commend him for going into Libya clear-eyed and without any illusions. Whatever the wisdom of his initial decision, we’re in this together now, and so we can only wish him well, and our brave warriors a swift and decisive victory.