So I picked the wrong day to be stuck without Internet access, I guess. It was March 19, eight years to the day after the invasion of Iraq, the US lobbed Tomahawk missiles into Libya, attempting to take out air defenses in preparation for enforcing a no-fly zone.
We’re on day two of this, still operating without Congressional approval – much to the indifference of the Congress, if the Senators on the Sunday shows are to be believed – and I don’t have the first clue what the ultimate objective is. Some officials in France and Britain and the US say the goal is to rid Libya of Gadhafi. Others stress that the military objective is limited to protecting civilians in Benghazi and other Libyan cities. But the endgame, under that military mandate, is destined for an uncertain limbo:
“There was this premature triumphalism about the passage of the UN resolution but what is the plan for dealing with this entity called Libya?” says Brian Katulis at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think-tank.
“You could have this very awkward phase emerging where Gaddafi is entrenched while there’s a rump state in eastern Libya and some but not all states in the Arab world work to isolate the regime.”
Conversely, what if the injection of western airpower is massively successful and Gaddafi’s regime collapses. That doesn’t mean an automatic transition to a new stable state. Does the “Pottery Barn Rule” apply if a chaotic scenario develops?
The fact that you can watch US officials on television saying that they have to “learn more” about the Libyan opposition while military aircraft are in the air facilitating their entry into power should be pretty distressing. And the answer here is pretty clear: the people who argued for attacks on Libya aren’t going to be satisfied with a detente, with Gadhafi in Tripoli and a Free Benghazi. This cannot help but escalate. And America tends to have their feet trapped in molasses when they set foot in a foreign land.
And then there’s the massive hypocrisy of selective interventionism here. Yemen fired live ammo on its own citizens and killed at least 45 just a day before this bombing of Libya. Bahrain tore down the Pearl Monument and rounded up opposition Shiites on the same day. And you can name dozens of other countries where intervention under the standard used in Libya would be at least as warranted. It’s not a reason to deny aid to the Libyan opposition, but it’s a reason to seriously doubt the so-called “freedom agenda” of the interventionists.
But all this context is relevant as an indictment of the elite leadership class of the United States of America. If everyone cares as much about the political rights of Arabs as Libya interventionists say, then what on earth are they doing in Bahrain and Yemen and Palestine? If everyone cares as much about the loss of innocent African life as Libya interventionists say, then what on earth are they doing ponying up so little in foreign aid and doing so little to dismantle ruinous cotton subsidies? These aren’t really points about Libya. And why should they be? What do I know about Libya? What does Chait know about Libya? These are points about the United States of America and the various elites who run the country and shape the discourse. Exactly the kinds of subjects that frequent participants in American political debates know and care about. I see no particular reason to think that Libya will have any impact on malaria funding, but I do think the level of malaria funding is impacted over the long term by the existence of a substantial number of people (of which Chait is one) who seem to advocate for humanitarian goals in Africa if and only if those goals can be advanced through the use of military force to kill other Africans.
So I hope this Libya policy works out. I have my doubts, but who knows. The world is full of surprises. I do know, however, that providing more bed nets to prevent malaria would be cheap and logistically simple compared to deposing Gaddafi and that the easiest step America could take to deal a blow to Arab autocracy would be to stop selling weapons to Arab autocrats that they turn around and fire on their people.
But you don’t understand the genius of this Matt, when we have to destroy the weapons systems that we sell to Arab autocrats, we know precisely how to disable them! It’s very efficient.
A sampling of the Sunday shows this morning shows a real bankruptcy of arguments to explain this. Admiral Mike Mullen wisely didn’t bother to justify it, limiting his comments to the circumstances in Libya. Lindsey Graham tried this weird bank shot where he claimed that rulers in Yemen and Bahrain were only emboldened to strike at their civilians because of Obama’s indecisiveness on striking Libya. So then now that resolve has been shown the repression will stop, right? Wrong. Jack Reed said we have a dialogue with Bahrain and Yemen, unlike in Libya, and so we can talk to those leaders. A lot of good that’s done.
But John Kerry, who has shown himself as basically the spokesman for this kind of humanitarian intervention, gave away the game here. He first intimated that the Bahraini opposition had the aid of Iran and Hezbollah, mirroring Secretary of State Clinton on this point. But he then said this on Meet the Press: the difference between Libya and the other countries was that the Arab League sanctioned this conduct and asked for help from the international community to install a no-fly zone.
The international community has spoken with one voice about Ivory Coast and Congo as well, so this still doesn’t get Kerry out of the woods. But my main point is this: how does that standard not indemnify every member state in the Arab League, allowing them to repress their citizens as long as they withhold support for an international response? Here are the member states of the Arab League. Do you recognize some of the names? Algeria. Bahrain. Iraq. Oman. Saudi Arabia. Sudan. Syria. Yemen. All countries which have repressed and killed their own citizens in response to protests. As I read it, all of the Arab League member states can merely block resolutions for international help for protesters in those areas, and save themselves from any action. Sure, they could suspend a member state, like they did with Libya in February, but basically, the international community then is at the whim of internal Arab League politics to muster a response to slaughter. What kind of standard is that?
The point is that there is no standard. It’s just a hypocritical, self-justifying way to use military force on a selective basis when hydrocarbon sources are threatened to be withheld.
UPDATE: I’ll add that this is all irrespective of the legitimacy of wanting to protect civilians in Benghazi and across Libya who seek self-representation. But I question the effectiveness and durability of this coalition which seeks to protect those civilians. James Fallows has much more.