It was a very calibrated speech. The mission tightly defined. The US is doing this and only this, we will not do that. The US “intervened” correctly, in consultation and concert with our allies, some b-team Arab nations and the blessings of the UN Security Council. Congress was consulted. If they pretend otherwise, they’re lying.
And, to date, we’ve been successful. We’ve established the “no-fly zone.” We prevented the threatened massacre of the innocents in Benghazi. We have Qaddafi’s forces on the run. We did all this in 30 days. How can anyone say that we dithered?
We’ll step back now and hope that “NATO” in the air and the “rebels” on the ground can finish the job of getting rid of Qaddafi. God knows what happens after that. The road to a more robust and Democratic Middle East and North Africa is going to be a long and bumpy ride. But the US must remain engaged; we dare not let events run their course, lest they run amok.
That was the policy portion of the speech.
The political parts of the speech were a bit cruder. Bush wasted a trillion dollars in Iraq and screwed it up beyond imagination. I am not Bush. Clinton could not and did not lead while people were being slaughtered in Bosnia (in deference to his wife, I will not mention Rwanda). His dithering begat four seasons of carnage. I am not Clinton.
Overall, it was a cold speech. And a particularly dishonest one, since the reason for the US intervention in Libya really has nothing to do with preventing a threatened slaughter in Benghazi or cobbling together an international coalition to forestall the advances of a madman. The US sits back and lets slaughters large and small happen all over the world. We do it all the time. We’re doing it right now in Syria, in Iran, in Africa. The US sits back and does not intervene while madmen and tyrants drive their nations insane. We do that every day; in Asia, in Africa and in the Middle East.
We intervened in Libya because the President and his advisors saw an opportunity for the US to change the historical narrative of US involvement in the Middle East; from supporters of corrupt (and often deranged) despots to supporters and enablers of this new “Arab Spring.”
Libya was chosen because it was easy. We fought there because we knew we could neutralize Qaddafi’s military forces in a matter of days. Faced with overwhelming US-led air power, we assume that Qaddafi’s generals will take matters into their own hands and facilitate their own “regime change.” Why wouldn’t they? They have nothing to gain and everything to lose. Much better to make their peace with NATO and be done with their old boss.
President Obama understands that in the business of changing narratives, the one thing you cannot do is lose. That’s why we didn’t organise a coalition to intervene in Syria or Iran. That’s why we chose Libya. We knew we would win (militarily) and in the process of supporting “good Muslims” who rose up in opposition to a very bad Muslim (Qaddafi), we would gain some cred on the Arab Street. Play a positive role in Egypt, assist democracy movements elsewhere in the region and — who knows? — the white-heat hatred of the US across the Middle East might soften and abate.
That’s the play. The larger strategy was laid out in a lengthy op-ed piece by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair that was published in the Wall Street Journal 10 days ago. Mr. Blair’s piece is worth reading in full. It’s the outline of how a “new narrative” might be written in the Middle East. Lacking any bright ideas of their own and feeling the full weight of the burden of US support for the region’s despots and tyrants over the last half century, it is no wonder that Mr. Obama and his advisors made a small piece of Mr. Blair’s strategy their own.
In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. It’s something, anyway. It’s a fairly bold move, in fact; a calculated roll of the dice but a roll of the dice nonetheless.
What makes it unattractive is its disguise: the presumed precision, the self-congratulation with regards to process, the gratuitous shots at Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, the chilly and almost faux appreciation of the military, topped off by an unnerving egomaniacal conceit: “I refused to let that happen.” By “that,” President Obama meant the threatened massacre in Benghazi.
The speech would have been better if President Obama had addressed the issue of the “Arab Spring” (and all that it implies, for better or for worse) as directly as Tony Blair did in his op-ed essay. That would have required some hard strategic thinking, perhaps a complete re-think of US policy in the Middle East and toward the Muslim world generally.
To a large degree, that is exactly what we were hoping we might get with President Obama; someone who would think differently about America’s role in the world and position us in new and interesting ways. What we got tonight was politics masquerading as policy. And not even in prime time. If it was prime time, the Administration reasoned, you might be alarmed. No need to be alarmed.
No worries there. The moment it was over you forgot every word.
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