The 'doing the right thing' policy for Libya

President Obama usually displays a calculated and analytical approach to foreign policy, so the recent decision to intervene with Libya boggles the mind. The lack of a comprehensive policy or clear plan of action may mean that the “Let’s bomb Libya” campaign will also bomb.

Air strike on Libyan government forces 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)
Air strike on Libyan government forces 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)
Nothing is as ethically seductive or morally intoxicating than the feeling of “doing the right thing.” In the realm of international relations, the feeling is further amplified when leaders fiercely evoke the “G” word: Genocide. We are doing what we are doing and it’s imperative we do so because we are preventing massacre, stopping mass murder and averting genocide. We were left with no choice, we had to do it. Contemporary and future historians, please take note of the courage and determination we demonstrated.
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Don’t get me wrong, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is a despicable caricature of a despot and a menace to his people. This Colonel is anything but finger-lickin’ good. Furthermore, I’m no pacifist and I strongly support the use of force in the face of evil. I’m not a New York Yankees fan for nothing.
Yet it is worthwhile to pay close attention to the inner workings apparent in the case of Libya. The temptation to “do the right thing” is so strong that it produces the unlikeliest of partners. As it stands now, the “Let’s bomb Libya” coalition consists of interventionist liberals, neoconservatives and the French Fifth Republic. While all three possess admirable tenets in their world outlook, none has a particularly impressive record of success in executing effective and durable foreign policy.
Here’s my problem: No one even contemplated military intervention in Tunisia. US President Barack Obama, as well as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are hush-hush about the goings on in Yemen and Bahrain, and after sacrificing former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak (a decision I wholeheartedly agree with) they are concerned by the potential instability that may rock Saudi Arabia. Therefore, in order to justify military action against Gaddafi, they manipulate historical precedents to support their cause: we remained criminally idle in Rwanda and intervened far too late in Kosovo. In both cases we reneged on our duty to prevent genocide and mass killings in the name of ethnic cleansing.
They are right, but the analogy is flawed; Libya, with all disrespect to the Colonel, is not Rwanda. Nor is it anything remotely close to the atrocities committed by Serbs against ethnic Albanians.
Secondly, they misrepresent what is actually going on in Libya. Pro-democracy forces are battling a ruthless dictator. Really? Says who? Do you seriously claim to know who these Berber tribes from eastern Libya that comprise the anti-Gaddafi forces really are? Do you have any sense whatsoever of what may happen should they take control of Libya? Do you recall the lovely Taliban you armed in 1987-88 so that they could fight the evil Soviet Union? Perhaps you also recall that they later formed the benevolent Bible-reading group called Al-Qaida, with the help of some Saudi, Madrasa-educated types?
Once again, I urge you not to misunderstand me. The Colonel’s regime is abhorrent and should go. Guess what, so should the regimes in North Korea, Iran and – yes – even Saudi Arabia. That doesn’t mean Tomahawk cruise missiles are a coherent foreign policy. So now you may be thinking I’m either a hypocrite or just rapantly inconsistent. If I supported Obama’s policy on Egypt, how can I oppose what he’s doing in Libya? Yet it appears I can.
Supposedly there is a realist foreign policy congruency in what is being done. Dictatorships are no longer tolerated and demonstrators are supported. In fact, as Professor Shlomo Avineri pointed out in interview on Monday, there has been a structural and substantive change in international relations since Kosovo in the 1990’s. National sovereignty no longer shields dictators from committing murder and instigating mass killings. Interventionism is permissible and should even be anticipated.
However, no real American or French interests are at stake in Libya. This is France dragging America along to “do the right thing” when the potential for complications is enormous. As with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they risk attacking in the wrong place.
Let’s take this one step further. In the days after the UN Security Council authorized “Resolution 1973” calling for a no-fly zone, it wasn’t clear what the objective was. If you want to topple Gaddafi – indeed a legitimate goal once you’ve commenced diplomatic and military actions - you need more than a no-fly zone; in Tripoli you need a no-drive zone, a no-going-to-the-bathroom zone. You also need to be certain that you are committed for the long haul, because a stalemate or a de facto division of Libya between Tripoli and Benghazi is a time bomb that will necessitate further involvement in the future. Obama’s assurances following the resolution that the US will merely “shape and enable” were countered by the bombs they dropped. Again, don’t misunderstand me. I have no problem with the bombing of Gaddafi’s regime; I just fail to comprehend the interests underlining it or the intended objectives.
I have been observing Barack Obama’s presidency very closely and I have tremendous respect for the balance, deliberative style and the avoidance of mistakes that he has exhibited until now. In foreign policy I can only admire his learning curve and yes, in case you’re wondering, that also includes his general approach to the Middle East - even when it means tension with Israel. I value his demeanor: He exhorts, explains, analyzes, and ruminates. While it is still premature to cast a judgment, as of now it looks as if at his core Obama is a foreign policy “realist,” more similar to Republicans Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush than to democrats like Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. He is much less of an idealist than the liberals want him to be and substantially less a romantic than neoconservatives who laud him of late believe him to be.
Which is why I’m in such a quandary regarding the Libya policy.
The notion that Sarkozy’s France is leading the battle-cry and that the US is just the junior partner is pure nonsense. Without the US pressure in the UN and Obama’s commitment of sea, air and command and control power, France would never have acted.
Two countervailing attitudes within the administration have surfaced regarding the pros and cons of the Libya policy, with the Hillary-Clinton-Samantha-Power-Susan-Rice axis that pushed for military action emerging as the victor. While that notion is legitimate it does not seem to be part of a comprehensive foreign policy. Rather, it looks more like a self-gratifying case of “Let’s do the right thing” and think about devising a clear policy later.
The writer is a diplomat who recently served as consul-general in New York.