Tuesday, March 29, 2011

At Libya to Say...

Pres. Obama giving his Libya speech (White House)
For a nation already overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would seem foolhardy for President Barack Obama, a fierce critic of the Iraq war, to lead us into battle once again.  Yet, a little over a week ago, Obama ordered US air power into Libya, as part of an international coalition to enforce a United Nations’ no-fly zone.  Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s dictator of forty years, had been engaged in a violent crackdown against a rebellion that had started like many of the other Arab uprisings of late: peacefully.

Obama articulated his reasoning for sending US forces into this engagement last night in a speech, carefully orchestrated to undercut any confusion that this was a true war.  Since the term war is relatively plastic (from the Korean War to the War on Drugs), this effort is largely semantic.  The White House wanted to make clear and the president underscored, that this was not like America’s other adventures into Muslim nations.  It still walks and quacks like a war, save for the lack of boots on the ground.

Many in Congress are grumbling that Obama did not go to them first.  Although their concerns are valid, Obama emphasized the urgency and Congress had just adjourned for one of their constituent weeks.  A false comparison has been made with Bush’s Congressional resolution for Iraq.  However, arguably, the former president’s foray into Iraq may have been no more legally valid (truthfulness of statements to Congress notwithstanding) because it called for the president to work with the United Nations.  The United States did not invade Iraq with any international authority.  While Obama explained his reasons for not waiting, it is unlikely that nothing he could say would appease opponents.

Isolationist Chas. Lindberg (wikipedia)
Those opponents, however, are overwhelmingly Democrats.  There are some Republicans complaining, but as Newt Gingrich’s schizophrenic position on Libya illustrates, most are struggling to find a reason to hate the intervention.  While anti-spending, anti-government non-rich misanthropy has taken hold of the Republican party, its neocon interventionist tendencies remain alive and well.  With only a few exceptions like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Charles Lindbergh style isolationism has not gained much in popularity.  Consequently, intervention in Libya almost screams Republican foreign policy.  However, most of these same Republicans try their darnedest to hate anything Obama.  Consequently, the best they can come up with is “what is the endgame?”

This is a fair question.  How long will the United States be engaged in Libya?  Well we do not know.  It will probably be about as long as it takes for Qaddafi to take a hint and bolt like the former rulers of Egypt and Tunisia.  After all the UN resolution does not just establish a no-fly, but it also allows for any measure to protect civilians.  However since many Republicans have historically supported open-ended commitments, the complaints seem to be about money.  Luckily South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, showing a little bit of that moderation that we used to like about him, called out Republicans for not complaining about Iraq’s costs.

Benghazi (wikipedia)
The fact remains that Libya is a unique situation in which the United States was able to lead an international effort to stop a massacre.  Qaddafi was on the verge of invading Benghazi, the Libyan opposition’s stronghold.  If he did, as the President said last night, there very probably would have been a slaughter.  Qaddafi has already shown a willingness to murder civilians (in addition to foreigners as in Pan Am 103).  When the uprising began, it was peaceful as in Eqypt and Tunisia.  However, Qaddafi saw fit to open fire on his own citizens and that led many of his government’s officials and military leaders to defect.  This also happens to be what turned the revolution into one of the armed variety.

As Obama explained, we could not wait until we saw the images of “slaughter and mass graves.”  Indeed Obama turned that determination not to allow a humanitarian crisis into an example of that American exceptionalism (which incidentally spell check does not recognize) everybody seems fear is fading.  “America is different,” Obama said defining our role as a vanguard for those that are seeking our ideals of self-government.

Star Spangled Banner Flag (wikipedia)
Many have said this, but last night’s speech should put to rest this disgusting notion that Obama (or liberals and progressives or any non-tea partiers) do not love American or believe in American exceptionalism.  Those that believe in this incarnation of exceptionalism perceive America as a place under the grace of God to show the world how wonderful we are.  A more nuanced, yet practical notion is that America is a blessed place (or not if you don‘t buy into God), but one that is an example to world of what democratic principles, inclusion and creativity can yield.

Obama’s rejection of the Iraq example, wherein we actually invade a country like Libya, narrows the focus of what our role is when facing a humanitarian crisis.  Not only does it cost us dearly in blood and treasure, but it also gives the United States ownership of everything that happens thereafter.  While Obama will inevitably be blamed for any bumps in the Libyan road, the United States as a nation is unlikely to be so roundly scorned by the international community as a result.

Col. Qaddafi (wikipedia)
While the Obama administration is straining to assure that there is no Obama doctrine, there is an implicit message or at least one that we received.  America’s foreign policy cannot be enacted through bullying.  While Saddam Hussein was a terrible person in just about any way, with the commingling of craven oil interests and family vendettas, to the outside world, it looked like the US was pushing countries around.  The arrogance of the notion that we were “liberators” poisoned the establishment of democracy in Iraq.  Obama’s perspective is one intended to stop the next Rwanda or Bosnia before it happens.  A helping hand to our fellow human beings not a life lesson in superiority complexes.  Still, as Obama told Brian Williams, Libya’s is not a “cookie cutter” policy.

There are serious questions that Americans need to ask and should ask about who controls what (NATO is in the process of taking over) and how long we will be investing in this.

I think that Obama would encourage us to ask question and yes even challenge his positions and we have an obligation to do so, but not disingenuous.  I do not think he would question our patriotism or American pride, whether it is John Boehner or Dennis Kucinich, for asking these questions.  Truly, American is a special place, if we can defend an assault against our common humanity, but also engage in honest and genuine debate without being attacked for not being patriots…or worse.

For a primer on Qaddafi spelling, try this.

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