Obama’s Libya Speech was Good – UPDATED with Media


Well done – reasonably clear and coherent, limited, nonimperial

 

Media Update: I spoke on a local radio show on the Libya intervention. Please go here to listen; the media player half-way down the page  (with the green label in Korean) plays back the interview. My comments begin around 14:00.

 

Call me a shill, but I am really warming up to Obama, at least on foreign policy most of the time. (He’s not yet serious about the debt though – but the neither is the GOP.) I thought this speech was an excellent example of a toned, measured foreign policy that fits US constraints (the huge debt, 2 other wars that no one likes, the rise of the rest) with US values (preventing massacres, trying to help others to democracy) and tries to embrace world opinion rather than strut. So well done.

 

1. There were no rousing calls to arms, American dominance, American exceptionalism, etc. This is probably the part the US right hated. They can’t forgive Obama for refusing to call America exceptional, and once again he showed yesterday that he really does see the US as part of a community of states, not someone standing above it as the most awesome place in world history with special privileges to tell others what to do. I don’t know why this angers Americans so much. Can’t we see that all this does is humiliate others and convince them that we are jerks? All you need to do is travel a little outside the US to see how much non-Americans find the discourse of American amazingness grating, insulting, pointlessly antagonizing. I see this all the time teaching Asians – who have their own long history they think makes them pretty great and unique too. What is wrong with talking to other as if we are normal and like them? Humility is a value too.

The US is just 3% of the world’s population. Lots of other countries – Iran, China, Russia, France, 19th C Britain and Germany – believe they are exceptional too. In an age of nationalism this is to be expected, but what is the actual value to all that, other encouraging people’s worst, most parochial chauvinistic attitudes about the country in which the were randomly born? This doesn’t mean the US can’t lead; I certainly agree that US dominance is reasonably benign (thank W that we even have to argue for that point though now). And the world is generally a better place for US leadership. But even the US makes mistakes – including really big ones like Iraq 2 or Dresden. So not posturing globally as the most awesome place, somehow entitled to special rules to intervene in other peoples business, strikes me as mature, adult, serious. As I have said before, if we want other to follow American leadership, we can’t do that by embarrassing or humiliating them that somehow America is uniquely positioned to overawe the planet. You don’t need to be a psychologist to know that will drive other people crazy. Besides, we don’t even have the resources or rep to talk like that anymore anyway. Bush and the Iraq told the whole world that American exceptionalism is just arrogance and hubris. It is in America’s interest to adjust to that and try follow the rules.

2. The speech explicitly defended saving countless lives in Benghazi. This was always the most important reason to go in – to prevent another Srebrenica. I can’t understand why the president and other western leaders aren’t getting HUGE credit for this. Once again, the West has prevented a mass slaughter (also in Bosnia and Kosovo – all Muslim populations it is worth noting too). Yes, we didn’t stop other slaughters, and we can’t do everything, but we did this, and it was good and right. This is real Western or American exceptionalism – we saved defenseless people from a madman. China wouldn’t have done that. I can think of few US uses of power of which Americans should be more proud. When people claim the US is a nasty, expansionist, torturing empire, we have counter-evidence now too. And the Germans should be downright embarrassed they abstained. I still have not read any convincing anti-intervention arguments on this issue.

3. Obama roughly fit US limited power to global expectations and rules. You hardly need to be a historian to know that US power is on the ropes at the moment. US debt is spinning out of control, the recession is brutal, the rise of the rest, especially China, limits our room to move. In such an environment, unilateralism’s costs go up, and Obama was right to state that very bluntly. Instead of Bush-style ‘mission accomplished’ machoismo, he said we are doing the best we can in a tough position, and that our reluctant hand was forced by the likelihood of a bloodbath. Isn’t that exactly the kind of leadership everyone wanted after 10 years of Bush and war and national exhaustion and division? How many people, in the US too, called for that for year as Iraq burned? This is why I don’t understand all the carping about Obama dithering or leading us into a quagmire. Doing the best we can in tough circumstances is a pretty good compromise response to a very hard issue. That is enough, at least for now, no?

4. A lot of the criticism strikes me as mean-spirited or trite. I like Krauthammer most of the time, but I thought calling this the ‘professor’s war,’ was just nasty – and not just because I am a professor supporting it (a fair riposte I suppose). I presume that means that trying to follow the UN rules, trying to go through international organizations like NATO, trying to build real coalitions of the willing, is some namby-bamby girlie man response to a war. Real men just kick a— with the 82nd Airborne, I suppose. But didn’t we learn from Bush that going from the gut is super-risky? How about the measured use of force that displays some contemplation of risk and reward? And isn’t it nice that we have some real allies this time around. Sure, they won’t do a lot of the heavy lifting, but compare Iraq 1 and 2. The first time through, the coalition of Bush 41 helped limit the cost and fallout of anti-Americanism. Lots of thinking and effort went into that. Then consider the course of Iraq 2.

Next, a lot of  the talk about quagmires and exit strategies seems awfully overheated to me this early in the game. As Kaplan notes, relax, we are just in the first week of this. It’s not Vietnam all over again, and the president made a strong commitment to avoid ground troops. So let’s cut him some slack to deal with a very hard issue. Conflict are never, ever clean – even the Iraq 1 blitzkrieg we all remember so fondly lead to a nasty semi-civil war in Iraq.

Finally, what’s up with this ridiculous ‘tough girls’ critique? How thoroughly irrelevant to anything, so just let Sjoberg walk you through how crude and practically insulting that is to the serious female advisors around Obama.

This flippancy, plus the general failure of realists to admit that Obama just saved, perhaps, 10,000 people, tells me that Obama more or less got it right. The best critique I have read of the ‘Obama Doctrine’ is here. The most serious problem going foward for any Obama Doctrine is the consistency problem. As one of my commenters has noted over the last few weeks, doesn’t the responsbility to protect (R2P) mean we should go to Ivory Coast next?

35 thoughts on “Obama’s Libya Speech was Good – UPDATED with Media

  1. Dr. Bob, the AP took a different view from yours:

    WASHINGTON (AP) — There may be less than meets the eye to President Barack Obama’s statements Monday night that NATO is taking over from the U.S. in Libya and that U.S. action is limited to defending people under attack there by Moammar Gadhafi’s forces.

    In transferring command and control to NATO, the U.S. is turning the reins over to an organization dominated by the U.S., both militarily and politically. In essence, the U.S. runs the show that is taking over running the show.

    http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iFWACvAYca3zjwTnnLh1JG8l2Rtw?docId=f1839ff6dd0e4265b2952651c972f4a5

  2. “This is real Western or American exceptionalism – we saved defenseless people from a madman.”

    Dr. Bob, I thought that you didn’t believe in “American exceptionalism”. You have mocked the term time and again in your blog. Or am I missing something? What was the true motivation for US intervention however? I think that the motivation started in France, the UK and Italy. This is “as if” the US is participating in a sort of Suez Canal operation. Yes, it is a great thing that a potential slaughter was averted, but a slaughter was going on long before this in Ivory Coast, so I don’t buy your argument. The reason I believe has to do with the fact that Europe gets a considerable precentage of its oil from Libya. We have already given the rebels premission to start selling oil in the oil producing areas that they control. I couldn’t believe that. (also last I read, Europe was still paying Gaddafi for use oil) Where are they going to deposit their oil revenue cash? In some European bank? In escrow until they have formed a “government”? Who will have access to these funds, etc. This gets messy fast. It might give birth to the “mother of all corruption”. You have a rebel government forming and we are going to trust that they administer their new found oil wealth to the betterment of Libya (oil was just descovered in Ghana and it is changing the face of that government as I write). Not only, that we have just aided in busting the gates that held tribal influnces in check somewhat in Libya. I need go no further. A conference is being held in the UK to decide the future of Libya. What is that? We have brought over some people claiming to be the leadership of the Rebels and what, now we will impose that leadership on Libya. That will feed directly into Al Q claims of illegitimate governments. From what I have researched, the leader of the “Rebels” at the conference in London is a US educated Libyan who used to work in the Gaddafi regime. Compound this with the fact that we now know that Hizbollah and Jihadists are among the rebels as testified by the US Admiral in charge of the Military wing of NATO yesterday. The claim was that they have seen “flickers” of Hizbollah and Al Q amoung the rebels. What are flickers? In fact the MAJORITY of the jihadists that fought our troops in Iraq were from Libya. Many of the same now fighting with the rebels. No wonder the Egyptian special forces are snooping around Eartern Libya.

    In addition, Sarko is facing a real tough re-election next year. By all accounts he should lose hands down. His party suffered a major defeat in local elections over the weekend. Polls in France unlike those in the US show that the French really endorse the bombing. In the US initial polls showed that Republicans supported the bombing more so than democrats. Overall the pros were relatively low. I don’t know about now. As you know France and Libya have a history of animosity. Plus this may help Sarko’s numbers.

    This might have been also an I owe you on the part of the US to the UK and France. After all the UK followed the US into Iraq and the French are actually fighting in Afghanistan. Germany couldn’t participate even if they wanted. Their military is broken. I imagine that you aren’t au courant vis a vis the state of the German military.

    We have had Iraq, and have handled Afghanistan very poorly, now this. The US Pentagon didn’t want this action. I am still scratching my head.

    The only face saving in the short term is if Gaddifi leaves for exile, probably in Italy or where ever. But this is where the real mayhem will begin.

    Dr. Bob, I know what it is like to have one’s family destroyed by civil war and mad men. I don’t want to see innocent Libyans suffer, but I don’t buy your argument. To me it seems more an argument of the heart. A short term fix. Were Libya a homogenous society, I might be more on board. If the West had the staying power to really see this through come what may, I might be on board. Tribal loyalties are one of the dire issues one can face in an African failed state; an issue that most Americans, its seems, can’t grasp, even after Afghanistan and Iraq. I say most, because I must say that a few of your frequent contributors to this blog do get it (ARMB and RP-Hume’s Bastard). GS as well.

  3. Dr. Bob:

    Another point. Our role is also not limited. We are activily participating in the Libyan Civil War. I realize that the President made that speech, but the very next day a high level US delegation was in England working with the resistance/rebels on the future of Libya. Also, you might want to listen to what our UN ambassador stated yesterday.

    This is from Le Figaro:

    Libye : les insurgés demandent plus de frappes des alliés

    (The insurgents demand that we hit more)

    http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2011/03/30/01003-20110330ARTFIG00595-libye-les-insurges-demandent-plus-de-frappes-des-allies.php

    Dr. Bob’s have your studied the African American reaction to the Libyan bombing? Anyway, I done for now with Libya.

    • I am as senstive to the Ivory Coast parallel as anyone else, but there are limits to western humanitarian reach. We all know that now – with US and Western power genuinely undercut by the great recession. But it doesn’t strike me that consistency should be the enemy of some helpful intervention when it is feasible. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good. I think this is helpful: http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/03/29/the_obama_doctrine_and_the_ivory_coast.

      • Thanks for the article. I read it and at least she stated that we and our allies are in Libya due to our interests. In this case oil (in France’s case, Sarko’s re-election bid as well). Nothing wrong with that. Just say it. She is flat wrong about the AU and the meddling. ECOWAS, The Economic Community of West African States has made a direct plea to the UN Security Council for direct intervention in the Ivory Coast. ECOWAS is made up of Liberia, and all the neighbors in that region. During the Liberian and Sierra Leone Civil Wars it was also a military alliance ECOMOG dispatched to help end the fighting (mix results). Dickinson should probably stick to her area of expertise. From what she has written she know nothing about Africa. She does make the case for Western interests vis a vis intervention, however. Good enough. Let’s get off the high moral horse. In fact Liberia has oil of her coast, and more, that entire coast-line has huge deposits of oil. The oil has only recently been discovered so we have been told. Multi-national oil companies are staking their claims. I think that Liberia even has an oil minister now. So, should conflict in Ivory begin to destabilize, Liberia and other new oil producing coastal states in that regions we will be back in Liberia full force. By then it will cost more and will require ground troops ready for jungle warfare. About 1 million refugees have been created already.

  4. Bob,

    Now we are hearing about CIA covert operations in Libya, arming rebels. Whatever the reasons being thrown about, whatever Obama says on the telly – protecting civilians, preventing genocide, enforcing the no fly zone – this is just another “WMD->Mission Accomplished->Operation Iraqi Freedom->Enduring Freedom” mission. And we also have the same cast of characters drawing up grand visions – then it was Chalabi and now we have Mahmoud Jibril.

    If this is not western imperialism then what is?

    • Imperialism is control of locals’ destinies by foreigners. Neither the West nor the Arab League is doing that in Libya.

      • I won’t address the claims of imperialism but Dr. Bob, we just had a conference in England to decide the future of Libya. Also, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, UAE, and other Arab League nations something that they are not.

      • Arbitrary invasion, changing governance/government (by force no less) – is more than enough “control of locals’ destinies” to be called imperialism.

        Remember the pre-1857 British shenanigans in India?

        • It was not an arbitrary invasion. No less than the Arab League called for it; the Libyan rebels called for it repeatedly and desperately; the West ‘dithered’ for awhile and didn’t just charge in like W into Iraq; the UN sanctioned it; even the Russians and the Chinese abstained rather than veto; R2P is the intellectual argument for it, not ‘imperialism’; and the primary motivation was the impending bloodbath in Benghazi.

          • Why won’t the Arab League call for action on Syria, et all? Dr. Bob, it is this kind of mentality that encourages and keeps Mugabe in power.

            If you can tell me who the Libyan rebels are I might buy your argument.

            – “and the primary motivation was the impending bloodbath in Benghazi.” Preemption?

            This was the reason given for the casus belli.

            • I have already admitted the consistency problem before. The debate involves more than just the ‘demand’ of crises that could be helped (Syria, Ivory Coast) but also the ‘supply’ of capabilities to help (the US can’t do everything). So we have to muddle through, and I think Obama’s speech admirably admits that.

              R2P is analytically and intellectually distinct from pre-emption.

  5. Also what is this fascination with doctrines? General Powell as talented as he was didn’t invent his so called doctrine. He got it from Clausewitz. Furthermore, there is no Obama doctrine. It is a variation of the value of American Exceptionalism as espoused by his presidency. JFK had his version, Ronald Reagan had his, Wilson had his, and Obama has found his. It was only a matter of time. Nothing wrong with that. I am all for American Exceptionalism.

      • Isn’t that more of your perception of exceptionalism? That is how you view exceptionalism. You are referencing what I perceive is a personality trait. The US fighting in WWII was exceptional. The US protecting the Western world during the Cold War was exceptional. The US playing a major role in defusing the west African regional conflict under President Bush W was exceptional. Not to mention the efforts at fighting aids on the continent during his presidency. In fact Bishop Tutu has even given W credit for it. President Bush W also helped to end that decades long wicked war in Angola. Did he handle Iraq extremely poorly, he sure did. We are still paying for it. President Carter showed great exceptionalism when he brought Egypt and Israel together. That was real American exceptionalism, despite his other issues. We are still paying for quite a few of those problems. President Wilson’s vision of the League of Nations was exceptional. President Obama has exhibited American exceptionalism in the past. But I don’t think that this is it. He gave a speech on Monday stating limited goals. Our actions demonstrate otherwise. That is not exceptional. That is hubris as well.

  6. USAID is American Exceptionalism. Since its creation subsequent US administrations have maintained its mandate, and more important the US tax payers, have funded, fed, and educated millions of people from all over the globe via USAID. The US’s indespensible role during the Ethopian famine (a famine, the aftermath, exacerbated by Hallie Myriam Mangetsu) is a another prime example of US Exceptionalism. Not only did we feed a straving nation, but we allowed thousands of Ethiopians to immigrate to the US at US tax payer expense. The US practically pays for the United Nations and well as NATO. One man or one US President did not create nor is US Exceptionalism as you would have us believe. The partisan and politization of these values by both the left and the right is what disgusts me. US Exceptionalism is the embodiment of decades of US history, culture and reason d’etre. Has the US acted contrary to its values in the past. It sure as, just as many nations before and after will. The present administration will do the same (there is a case to be made that it has already). This is life. This is the human experiment of life. We are human. What you do instead is to work on making things better and not dwelling on the past and tearing people. This is what separates greatness from the status quo and mediocrity.

    For all the reasoning defending our inviolvment in Libya at this momoent, our Secretary of State, Clinton was very candid a few days ago when she stated on the record that our European allies demonstrated how important Libya was to THEIR interests and why the US should get involved. Good for her. THEIR interests. What are those interests, lets begin our debate on whether or not the US should be involved in Libya there instead of watching our government play good cop, bad cop.

  7. Please read this version instead, I hit return before proofing the above, sorry.

    USAID is American Exceptionalism. Since its creation subsequent US administrations have maintained its mandate, and more important the US tax payers, have funded, fed, and educated millions of people from all over the globe via USAID. The US’s indispensable role during the Ethiopian famine (a famine, the aftermath, exacerbated by Hallie Myriam Mangetsu) is a another prime example of US Exceptionalism. Not only did we feed a starving nation, but we allowed thousands of Ethiopians to immigrate to the US at US tax payer expense. The US practically pays for the United Nations and well as NATO. One man or one US President did not create nor is US Exceptionalism as you would have us believe. The partisan and politicization of these values by both the left and the right is what disgusts me. US Exceptionalism is the embodiment of decades of US history, culture and reason d’etre. Has the US acted contrary to its values in the past. It sure as, just as many nations before and after will. The present administration will do the same (there is a case to be made that it has already). This is life. This is the human experiment of life. We are human. What you do instead is to work on making things better and not dwelling on the past and tearing people. This is what separates greatness from the status quo and mediocrity.

    For all the reasoning defending our involvement in Libya at this moment, our Secretary of State, Clinton was very candid a few days ago when she stated on the record that our European allies demonstrated how important Libya was to THEIR interests and why the US should get involved. Good for her. THEIR interests. What are those interests, lets begin our debate on whether or not the US should be involved in Libya there instead of watching our government play good cop, bad cop.

  8. From The BBC:

    Gaddafi army ‘not at breaking point’

    – Adm Mullen said the air strikes had wiped out between 20% and 25% of Col Gaddafi’s forces.

    “We have actually fairly seriously degraded his military capabilities. That does not mean he’s about to break, from a military standpoint, because that’s not the case,” he said.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-12924807

    If this is really the case, and short of Gaddafi going into exile in the near future, we had better have a long term strategy. If this thing goes on into the US and French election seasons (2012), I wonder what will happen?

  9. For one, I’m not entirely sold on the fact that any kind of genocide was likely if we had stayed out of this one. Qaddafi talked a lot of trash about going door to door, room to room, but what do we expect him to say? Was he talking about civilians or the rebels? As we should know pretty well by now, often there’s no clear distinction between the two.

    He’s a madman and a tyrant but I’m just sick of seeing “genocide” used to justify intervention in non-genocidal situations, while real genocide goes unchecked.

    I just don’t see how we can afford the luxury of destroying more monsters abroad – a third war for goodness sake! – when we’re running massive deficits and up to our ears in Afghanistan, and after spending a trillion dollars in Iraq.

    I don’t buy it. We can’t fix every problem and while we have an interest here, it’s not vital enough to warrant any kind of significant investment of money or prestige. Thank God for Marine le Pen (and her chance at splitting the the rightwing vote and dashing Sarko’s chances for reelection) or we wouldn’t even have France helping out.

    It’s clear we’re not just enforcing a no-fly zone. It’s clear we’re trying to kill Qaddafi. We have CIA boots in the ground if not Army or Marine boots. We don’t know who the rebels are. There’s no reason to expect to have a politically functional and competent opposition movement to hand power over. There are no strong institutions – not even a real army. I can’t imagine this ending well for anybody.

    • I do think a bloodbath was reasonably predictable. Qaddafi and sons repeatedly talked about rivers of blood, hunting them like rats, going house to ho9use, etc. As for the idea that the regime would only target rebels: 1) it is pretty hard to tell from civilians apart. On the TV coverage the rebels just look like civilians who picked up guns. 2) As I wrote earlier (https://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/if-libya-becomes-rwanda-or-bosnia-well-have-to-intervene/), a large amount of the Libya population has thrown itself behind the rebellion, so the set of the Libyan population that might be reasonably construed as rebels is pretty large. 3) ‘Reasonably construed’ is meaningless for some like Qaddafi. Dictator-types like him always go overboard in these sorts of situation. I think it is no stretch to argue that Benghazi would have been Srebrenica all over again.

  10. I have had some nasty debates with ARMB, but ARMB is on point on this one. Benghazi would never have been a Srebrenica. Never.

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