I actually feel like Obama has done a reasonably good job in this case. Unlike Graham, he understands that military action led too obviously by the U.S. could backfire and consolidate Qaddafi’s grip on power. And he has never been as pliant where Libya was concerned as with other dictatorships in the region.
I do actually agree with John McCain, who said that Obama probably waited too long before moving to intervene. But if McCain was right on the timing, his intervention also manifested that particular brand of bonkers on which the Republican Party has a near-monopoly. “I have great confidence”, the Senator proclaimed, “in our capabilities that the most mightiest nation in the world is now matched up against a third-rate or fourth-rate power”.
It’s when you hear people spouting this kind of tripe, which not only smacks of the sorriest type of jingoism, but which demonstrates not an iota of understanding of what this military intervention is supposed to achieve, that you wonder whether Qaddafi is the only crazy one in the room.
I suspect that there are a couple of reasons why it took Obama so long to decide on a UN-backed intervention. In the first place, the White House and State Department had developed a rather silly model of an “Arab Spring” to understand what was happening in North Africa and the Middle East. While their loose doctrine was commendably restrained, and exhibited an understanding that successful movements for democracy can only be internally generated, it also made some mistakes. It decided that a series of events that were connected (Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya) were all part of the same process. They ignored local contingencies and different national histories and conditions. So it took some time to them to realise that Libya was playing out differently, and that the conditions created by Qaddafi’s intransigence and brutality might require a different kind of action on the part of the international community.
Secondly, Obama very wisely decided that if a military intervention was to take place, it needed to do so with wide backing. Hence the arduous negotiations to prevent a Security Council veto and get the Arab League on-side. And the delay also meant that the character of military operations would have to go beyond the implementation of a no-fly zone because the extra days had allowed Qaddafi to arrive at the edge of Benghazi. This in turn undoubtedly required further negotiations.
But the coalition is already fraying. The Arab League, which backed military action that went well beyond a no-fly zone is suddenly saying that “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone”. This is disingenuous: what the Arab League backed, and what the UN authorised, was different from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone. As with most U.S.-led military interventions, one gets the feel that more could be done to avert civilian casualties, but if you call for military intervention (and remember, it was the Arab League, not Obama who made that call), you can’t then criticise that intervention because it takes the form you requested and expect to have a leg to stand on.
Countries are also taking part in the intervention for a variety of reasons. David Cameron needs his Margaret Thatcher moment...his polls at home are plunging as people come to grips with the impact that his brutal cuts to social services are having on their daily lives. There’s nothing like a foreign war to boost poll ratings, as the Iron Lady herself found when, almost certain of losing the election that was to come in 1983 or 1984, she got a massive boost at the polls from the Falklands War.
Nicholas Sarkozy is in a similar position. Lagging in opinion polls ahead of next year’s election, he needs to redeem himself in the eyes of voters. He also needs to recapture French influence in North Africa after his government was humiliatingly caught attempting to help the repressive Tunisian government put a stop to protests earlier this year. More even than Britain, France behaves with a keen sense of neo-colonial hubris in the Sudan and Sahel regions of Africa—a legacy of Charles DeGaulle’s 1960 ultimatum to French African colonies.
But opposition to intervention, much of it very legitimate, is cohering in the U.S. and British public spheres. But this opposition often takes a peculiar character. It’s funny how a certain breed of critic on the left is able to main, sans irony, a monopoly on good intentions. It’s inconceivable to them that any of the governments they are accustomed to criticising could do anything worthy.
They hold this view, in some cases, because they view the world as one made up of interlocking systems, dictated by an unalterable political-economic logic, in which one class behaves in X manner because that is in its interest, and the other behaves in Y manner because that is in its interest. It is much more difficult and dissatisfying to explain a world in which people behave inconsistently and what we see as irrationally. But people are difficult and dissatisfying beings who, I believe, are certainly capable of holding ideologically inconsistent positions.
I can understand the reluctance of China, Russia, Brazil, Germany and India to commit to or to sanction a military intervention. But an abstention is a curiously amoral position to take, particularly by a group of countries who seek to make a claim on international influence. It effectively demonstrates subscription to the doctrine of ‘Power without Responsibility’.
If these countries, which aspire to regional as well as global leadership, really find something objectionable about the intervention in Libya (and there are lots of very good reasons to find the attack by the U.S., Britain and France morally hazardous), they should have done whatever they could to stop it. Instead, they are trying to have their cake and eat it, irrespective of what the consequences of a divided and halting international intervention might be for Libyans.
As someone who is strongly opposed to the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the intervention in Libya is a real conundrum. Arguments about national sovereignty ring hollowly coming from Russia and China (who find the doctrine useful for suppressing dissent at home), and fly in the face of the very idea of humanitarianism and human rights.
The blanket argument that “the West” should never undertake any intervention again—even a humanitarian one—in the Middle East or North Africa is equally problematic. We're talking about an international community haunted by the memory of Rwanda that has no other model than the military for situations like this where time is of the essence (this itself is a serious problem). But what would another model look like? And if non-intervention is to become the watchword, what is it we are acceding to? Some kind of religious/communal right of self-determination? If so, human rights human rights go out the window, particularly when Libya’s neighbours (who would presumably be expected to intervene) are largely authoritarian (and yes, hypocritically propped up by the U.S. and its allies).
We should see, as a beginning to working through these inconsistencies and hypocrisies, a commitment from countries taking part in the military intervention, and all of those who authorised the intervention (tacitly or otherwise—therefore including China, Russia, Brazil, Germany and India) to prevent companies from their nations making money in Libya’s energy sector once the dust settles and a new government, whatever its stripe and however long it takes to emerge, is in place.