Monday, March 28, 2011

Giving Obama his Due on Libya

As I've said before, I was of two minds about Obama’s sudden decision to support military invention in Libya for all the usual reasons. The humanitarian rationale for intervening always seemed clear enough, but I feared that he’d dithered so long that the military resources he was suddenly prepared to commit to Libya would be too little, too late to do much good.

And then there’s the administration’s evasiveness about the scope of the commitment we’re undertaking and what price we’re willing to pay to discharge it. That's not reassuring when the likely scenarios about how a protracted intervention in Libya will play out are all unattractive.  If our experience of Obama's governing style is any indication, his strategic thinking probably won’t be much clearer after he speaks tonight.

Yet, as Tom Malinowski reminds us, Obama's decision to intervene is already a smashing success in humanitarian terms and likely to play strategic dividends down the road that would have been lost to us if he hadn’t acted.
“[B]efore the debate moves on, as it must, we should acknowledge what could be happening in eastern Libya right now had Qaddafi’s forces continued their march. The dozens of burned out tanks, rocket launchers, and missiles bombed at the eleventh hour on the road to Benghazi would have devastated the rebel stronghold if Qaddafi’s forces had been able to unleash them indiscriminately, as they did in other, smaller rebel-held towns, like Zawiyah, Misrata, and Adjabiya. Qaddafi’s long track-record of arresting, torturing, disappearing, and killing his political opponents to maintain control suggests that had he recaptured the east, a similar fate would have awaited those who supported the opposition there. Over a hundred thousand Libyans already fled to Egypt fearing Qaddafi’s assault; hundreds of thousands more could have followed if the east had fallen. The remaining population, and those living in refugee camps abroad, would have felt betrayed by the West, which groups like Al Qaeda would undoubtedly have tried to exploit. Finally, Qaddafi’s victory—alongside Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s fall—would have signaled to other authoritarian governments from Syria to Saudi Arabia to China that if you negotiate with protesters you lose, but if you kill them you win.

“And the United States would still have been embroiled in Libya—enforcing sanctions, evacuating opposition supporters, assisting refugees, dealing with an unpredictable and angry Qaddafi. But it would have been embroiled in a tragedy rather than a situation that now has a chance to end well.”
If nothing else, this should absolve Obama of the charge that he dithered away a chance to do some humanitarian good. Moreover, it’s hard to understand the argument that, having intervened, he has gotten us into a quagmire from which there’s no morally and strategically acceptable avenue of escape. Opponents of intervention say that, in deference to our national security interests, we should have stood idly by watching the inhabitants of Benghazi be massacred even though it was in our power to stop it.  Yet if we ever had the (im)moral fortitude to do that, and the readiness to suffer the reputational harm it would have caused us among Middle Eastern populations, why shouldn’t we have the fortitude to cut our losses down the road if the cost of standing by the rebels becomes exorbitant? Shouldn’t that be easier to do, morally and strategically, than not intervening in the first place after our intervention has given the rebels a fighting chance to save themselves and to get rid of Gaddafi?


Anonymous said...

Very well put. You and Tom Malinowski should have been Obama's speechwriters for tonight's speech. I only hope Obama makes a case half as good as you and Tom have made for him.

Mr. Kissinger: said...

If we'd not intervened, America would look cold-hearted, but it wouldn't look weak if Qaddafi remained in power. Now we'll look soft-hearted and soft-headed if he does. Strategically speaking, that is not a good combination.