It’s still much too soon to tell how America’s Libya liberation venture will work out.
The international coalition is shaky; the UN mandate is dubious; air power has frequently disappointed those who trusted that it alone can win wars; political support in the US is shaky; the Great Loon of Libya, a statesman in the hallowed tradition of Idi Amin, is as cunning as he is daffy; Libya’s fragile unity may crumble as the tribes and clans turn on one another; the rebels are poorly armed and poorly organised; some of them may in fact be experienced international terrorists.
For the record, I hope it all works out. I want the government to fall, the Great Loon to flap away into inglorious exile somewhere dismal and dull, and I want the rebels, with help from NATO and the Arab League, to set up a workable government that gives Libya’s people a chance to reinvent their country and spreads the oil wealth around. (I would also like a pony.) I think we are out on a limb here and I wish the president had found the time to get some congressional backing up front, but we are where we are and the best we can do now is to muddle on through.
We will, I very much hope, be lucky enough to come out of this Wilsonian war in Libya with a decent result. What follows, though, will not be a Wilsonian peace. The Libyan adventure is a lot of things: a noble effort to protect innocent civilians from horrifying goons, an experiment in a new kind of indirect American leadership, a last desperate throw of the dice by a hyperactive French president whose people increasingly loathe him, an attempt by flustered Arab establishmentarians to get on the right side of popular fury, a demonstration of Britain’s enduring if tortured moralism, a slugging match in the sand, and a nailbiting distraction for a White House that has repeatedly failed to convince voters that it is ‘focused like a laser’ on the economy and has much more to lose if this goes bad than it has to win if things work.
But there is one thing it won’t be, even if it “works”: the start of a new age of multilateral cooperation under the rule of law. The UN-blessed response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait failed to start the new age of peace, collective security and law; similarly the liberation of Libya is a fluke not a trend.
Let’s start with the UN Security Council resolution that set the whole thing up. Russia and China were unhappy enough with the idea that the UN could authorise an attack on a member government to challenge its domestic policy that they abstained. Hardly a surprise — both governments can easily imagine circumstances under which they would have to get down and dirty with domestic malcontents, and should Russia need to kill some more Chechens or China spill some more blood in Tienanmien Square some day, they don’t want a bunch of interfering busybodies poking around. But Qaddafi is such an unattractive figure, his threats were so blood curdling, and, perhaps not least, the prospect that the western powers might overreach and expose themselves was so deliciously attractive that they decided to sit back and let the West give war a chance.
They are probably not going to be this cooperative next time. By the time American, French and British lawyers and diplomats finished stretching the resolution, it was hard to see what activities were banned. NATO could not only impose a no fly zone and intervene to protect civilians under actual attack; it apparently believes it has a legal right to recognise rebels as the legitimate government, market their oil, sell them arms, and attack any Libyan forces anywhere in the country with any weapons they choose without regard to the danger those forces pose to civilians in the short term — and to continue the operation pretty much at will. Even ground forces might be permissible — as long as they don’t call themselves an occupying army. Having sold the resolution to the Russians and Chinese as a compromise measure that circumscribed their freedom of action, the allies have interpreted it to give them carte blanche for virtually any actions one can imagine.
All very well, and Gaddafi deserves everything he gets, but how willing will Russia and China be to let the next broadly worded resolution get through the Council? Will they be so awed by the western spirit of morality and law that they sit on their hands while new resolutions against anti-western tyrants sail through the Council? Or will they start insisting on much tougher safeguards and guarantees under threats of new vetoes?
France only came along on this ride for some special reasons, none of which were particularly idealistic. President Sarkozy is a riverboat gambler on a long losing streak; his party just got whacked in local elections, and polls show him failing to get into the second round of voting as his re-election campaign nears. France’s ongoing loss of power to Germany in the European Union and the accelerating decline of its global influence deeply worry the French. Libya is right on France’s door step — meaning both that France cares about what happens there and that it is close enough for France’s increasingly overstretched and underfunded military to reach. It is next door to Algeria, a country that as an economic partner and a major source of immigrants is of vital concern to the French; it is not, the French reason, a bad thing to show the North Africans that France remains a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, the French are still trying to recover the ground they lost early in the Arab revolutionary year, when French diplomacy unambigously backed the despots in Tunisia and Egypt.
France has not changed religions; it still prays at the shrine of Charles de Gaulle, not the temple of Woodrow Wilson. French national interest favours this particular intervention, but in future questions of this kind, France will be as prickly and as, well, selfish as ever. Note to all tyrants in French speaking Africa: relax. As long as you keep Paris sweet, the UN Security Council is not going to interfere with your ongoing programs of looting and dissident killing.
The Arab League and the African Union are also getting an education in just how freely the western powers will interpret a mandate — when they can get one. Give the old imperialists an inch of legal standing and they’ll take a mile of turf. They will say anything to get you to sign on, and then they will do exactly what they had planned all along. My guess is that this experience will not increase the appetite of Arab and African governments for new western mandates in new crises.
The Libyan effort is also not going to be the start of a new era of liberal internationalism in American politics. The dirty truth behind the Libyan campaign is that if only the Wilsonians supporting this war it wouldn’t be happening.
Human Rights Watch can’t start wars on its own. Wilsonian liberal internationalists need friends to start wars. Gaddifi, unlike most despots, has been generous enough to provide them. In particular, Gaddafi, like Saddam Hussein and the Iranian mullahs but unlike most other despots around the world, has become a dangerous enemy to millions of American Jacksonians who think liberal internationalism is just a synonym for clueless professors flapping their lips.
Attacking Gaddafi is a political possibility because Jacksonians see him as a terrorist, because they care about oil and because the COFKATGWOT (the currently nameless ‘conflict formerly known as the global war on terror’) has fixed their attention on the Middle East. Jacksonians have never forgiven Gaddafi for the Lockerbie bombing attack, and even before that there were plenty of people who thought that the only problem with Ronald Reagan’s airstrikes against the Great Loon (unsanctioned by the UN or any other international body and roundly denounced by many Wilsonians at the time) was that they didn’t kill him. Anger, fear and the conflation of Middle Easterners with terrorism also fuels public support for the Libyan operation. Without 9/11 and Lockerbie, the political resistance to this war would have been much stronger and the White House political calculations would have been very different.
On top of that is the oil question. While there are a lot of Americans who think war for oil is immoral, there are plenty more who think that oil, that necessary driver of our economy and the condition of our prosperity, is one of the few things worth fighting about — and a much better reason for war than helping to put one gang of thieves in while kicking another one out.
Gaddafi is a uniquely vulnerable target; few other despots have done as much to draw the ire of the average American as he has. Don’t expect many American bombers over Myanmar, Congo, Zimbabwe or Ivory Coast anytime soon.
The Wilsonians now have their war; they also now have their president. Barack Obama’s inner Woodrow Wilson has clearly won out; he has nailed his colours to the mast of a liberal international foreign policy. The cautious Jeffersonian realists have lost one policy battle after another in this administration. Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn law (“if you break it, you own it”) has been cast to the winds. A president who won his party’s nomination as the most consistent opponent of unpopular interventions abroad has become an apostle of liberal war. Not since Saul went to Damascus has there been such a dramatic conversion.
Liberal Wilsonians have a tough row to hoe in this wicked world. The kind of wars they support — humanitarian interventions blessed by the UN — are generally speaking deeply unpopular in the United States. Most non-Wilsonians (a substantial majority of the population) loathe the idea of American ground forces getting involved in these conflicts, and this political reality ties Wilsonians into knots.
Abroad, international support for these missions only rarely appears — like a January robin in Vermont. Even now Wilsonians can only get their way in Libya by stretching the meaning of the narrow UN resolution.
We have had Wilsonian wars before and I have no doubt we will have them again. You can, sometimes, wage Wilsonian war. What you cannot do, at least not yet and probably never, is build a Wilsonian peace.
Woodrow Wilson discovered this almost a century ago. He could fight a “war to end war” and make the world safe for democracy; but a fatal combination of American political resistance at home and the cold calculations of national self interest by leaders abroad thwarted his attempt at Versailles to create a new global order on Wilsonian lines.
Like Wilson, President Obama is going to find it easier to fight for humanitarian ideals than to make them prevail.
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