Watching the President’s speech today was an exercise in trying to find clarity of purpose and meaning where there was none. Delivering the speech looked a lot like it was a worried effort to stave off increasing criticizm that a sinking Obama is reaching hard for low-hanging foreign policy fruit to define his administration and thereby reverse his ailing political fortunes.
Throughout the whole speech I was struck by the over-use of the “protection of freedom-loving innocent civilians” and “democratic revolution” rhetoric. Libyan society is many things, but freedom-loving, democratic and innocent are not any of the adjectives I would use in describing it. Perhaps violent, tribal, Islamic, oppressive, dog-eat-dog, geographically cursed, etc. are much closer to the mark. The fact remains there is simply no logical alternative to Ghadafi in Libya. Whipping the public up into an emotional fervor over the way he deals with insurrection (which is a different thing from dealing with peaceful protest) does not do anything to change that reality.
But here we are now, with a French initiative designed to demonstrate to Germany who carries the big stick in the Europe being the adopted political-recovery-through-foreign-policy-intervention tool of Obama. In any case, the political rhetoric doesn’t matter. The reasons (or lack thereof) and justifications for attacking Libya also do not matter. The fact that far worse atrocities are being carried out in systematic ways (as opposed to violence incidental to civil war) by oppressive regimes elsewhere are being paid no attention by the Americans is also a meaningless point to ponder. Those are all good reasons to not trust the future foreign policy of the current American administration, but they do not address the new realities created by the military actions being taken there (on the other hand, France has a much clearer reason for attacking Libya, and like most actual reasons nations go to war it is not the reason they claim it to be in the press — duplicity is part and parcel of statecraft).
Before the intervention in Libya actually occurred and everyone was doing what they really wanted to do — holding press conferences while waiting for Ghadafi to regain comfortable control of his country — the strategic balance of the Mediterranean and future of Libyan sponsored terrorism were not open questions. Now they are. Egypt now has a very clear chance to split Cyrenaica from the western half of Libya whether or not Ghadafi maintains any control, develop energy assets there and use the region as a breeding ground for its own regional militant proxies (which would do many good things for Egypt in the short term, including provide an Arab counter to Iran’s Hezbollah, provide an outlet for disruptive violent elements of its Islamic society that the state has oversight on, etc.). The Sudanese no longer have a counterbalance in the region sponsoring proxy groups that undermine their regional clout (which will be interesting to watch since the south ceceded just recently). Al Qaeda franchise groups no longer have a Ghadafi who is concerned with keeping up appearances after the formal renoucement of terrorism in 2003 to stifle their efforts at reaching into Libya for root support. Italy’s ENI has no idea who the next players in Libyan energy are going to be — which by extension is a troublesome issue for the entire country. Etc.
And of course Ghadafi himself is likely rethinking his comittment to the renouncement of terrorism.
The first concerns about national power and strategic balance are very interesting. The last point is not so much strategically interesting as it is of profound concern for the average European living in blithe comfort. Ghadafi did renounce terrorism, but certainly did not go so far as to cut all ties with the militant proxies that he cultivated over decades of subtle, expensive and concerntrated effort. Certainly he still has significant levers in this realm and, at least to me, doesn’t appear the sort to simply forgive and forget that the Europeans turned their backs on him while he was experiencing a rebellion in his country.
Of course, the above paragraph is about Ghadafi. If he dies tomorrow, there is absolutely no guarantee that the next dictator to rule Libya will see things the same way as the West. Actually, that is simply impossible given public sentiment in Libya. There is no guarantee that the society will settle itself anytime soon, either, whether or not it becomes pro-Western or another Y2K Afganistan. Ghadafi surprised the West by retaining an overwhelming level of support not just in the street but within the military as well. All of that sentiment is not going to simply disappear once he himself is gone. The intricate and inexorable influence of tribalism ensures this. Whatever new power structure arises in Libya after Ghadafi (assuming he does eventually get deposed or disposed of) will be required to conduct a mopping up operation involving the rounding up and execution (or at least impolitic political imprisonment) of former Ghadafi supporters deemed to be continued dangers. I’m sure the Obama administration will not intervene at that time to protect former Ghadafi loyalists, and I doubt Anderson Cooper will head back to the streetz to give us the scoop on how his favorite underdogs are now atrocitying the bejeezus out of their former masters (and anyone else they don’t like just then). I wonder if Lara Logan will have anything to say? (And I actually don’t mean that last sentence as a tacky stab at her for being wrong about Egypt and Egyptians — I’m curious what her view might be now.)
In the press after watching the Obama speech I was struck by the number of people who felt that something of importance had been said. Several comentators made noise to the effect that “now we know what Obama’s foreign policy is” and “the President laid out a clear and convincing case for what he is doing” when nothing of the sort occured. Making balance arguments of negation in speeches is a technique for saying nothing, and that is all Obama did. Statements like “America is not in the business of policing the world, but that is not an argument for never acting” don’t go very far to clarifying the American policy towards anything, particularly when the whole speech focused on the protection of human rights in the context of the Libyan civil war without calling it what it is, and also without mentioning more severe and prolific human rights abuses in Syria or Congo which occurred over the last three days. Libya is a fundamentally unclear situation in which America has no strategic interest whatsoever. It is difficult what any statements about American action there have to do with American global policy, or put another way, what the American intervention in Libya does to clarify the American position anywhere else.
Though America has no interest in Libya, I think Obama believed he had some. He may have viewed this was his chance to pull a Clinton and redefine a failing first term in a positive way through (finally) taking strong a foreign policy action. I said this would be the case a while back, but I had assumed that the issue Obama would pick would be one with more meaning. I also thought that if it would be a meaningless issue he invested himself in, it would at least be one with a higher chance of and clearer criteria for success than what Libya has to offer. Namely, I had predicted that Obama would be more likely to take concrete military action against Iran (which I viewed as the most likely among alternative foreign policy plays) because that would actually mean something and it appears the time may finally be ripening for it. Such an operation would be meaningful both in concrete, political and symbolic terms, and meaningful action goes a lot farther with Americans than flimsy rhetoric expressed as bombing sorties in a country that has little to no impact on American interests. Instead, Obama has picked a side issue of no strategic importance, perhaps in an attempt to play it safe — after all, a bungled operation in Libya would affect the Americans none whatsoever (whereas a bungled operation in Iran would have a far more significant fallout). Unfortunately for him, I doubt that the world will present another chance to shine (or fail) before the next presidential elections are in full swing.