On Libya, Who Does Obama Think He is Fooling?


The answer is: liberals. No surprise there; liberals are as confused about "humanitarian interventions" now as they were in the (Bill) Clinton days. They just don’t get it, and the ones who get it least are the ones who are most inclined to cut Obama slack, no matter what the issue is.

Juan Cole usually does get it. Not this time. Last weekend he produced what amounts to a guide for perplexed Obama apologists on his "Informed Comment" blog.

Notwithstanding Cole’s focus, it must be said that most of what passes for a left in both the United States and Europe sides, like Cole, with the War Party. This is one of those rare instances where Democrats are even worse than Republicans, though the skepticism voiced by some Republican leaders doubtless has more to do with weakening Obama than more principled or pragmatic considerations.

Cole’s piece is instructive for setting out the pro-war position, such as it is, perspicaciously. After rehearsing the now familiar case for demonizing Qaddafi and praising the "rebels," a difficult task since they are still an inchoate force that neither he nor anyone else knows much about, and then distinguishing this latest war from recent neo-conservative misadventures, Cole goes on to list (and dismiss) reasons that he claims some on the American left advance for opposing intervention. He claims that the left’s reasons for opposing Obama on Libya reduce to absolute pacifism (which categorically prohibits the use of force) or absolute anti-imperialism (which categorically prohibits all outside interventions in world affairs) or to what he calls "anti-military pragmatism" (which holds that military force is in principle incapable of resolving social problems).

In Cole’s discussion, there is barely a nod to Obama’s hypocrisy (recall his silence during the Israeli assault on Gaza and his pale condemnation of murderous repression in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain), and there is no mention of the fact that Obama undertook this latest war of choice without Congressional approval – a dangerous precedent and an impeachable offence (at least back in the Watergate era, when Richard Nixon was charged for invading Cambodia without Congressional authorization). Neither does Cole acknowledge how preposterous it is that there is money for another war but not for meeting urgent needs at home — needs made more urgent by "bipartisan" support for unnecessary, indeed counterproductive, deficit reduction and austerity.

Cole makes short shrift of the reasons he does adduce, as indeed he should. But they are not the reasons opponents of humanitarian interventions advance. The argument is not that the use of force or violations of state sovereignty are always wrong or counter-productive, but that in today’s world humanitarian reasons are covers for imperial machinations. In principle, they needn’t be, but in practice they are, and this case is no exception.

Interventionists favor easily demonizable targets; Qaddafi is a fine example. However, it is seldom, if ever, the case that the demonized side is as evil as depicted or, for that matter, any worse than "the good guys." This usually becomes clear in the fullness of time, though clarity can be a long time in coming when the propaganda machine is working well. Thus there are many on "the left" who still demonize Serbs and laud Bosnian Muslims and Kosovars. In the Libyan case, the conventional wisdom may be at least as hard to dispel, despite the fact that the US and NATO are intervening into what is plainly becoming a civil war.

The character and legitimacy of the Qaddafi regime and the rights and wrongs of the combat taking place in Libya are important to reflect upon and assess, and the ways they are represented figure importantly in mobilizing public support for war. But these issues are irrelevant to the question of whether or not to support this humanitarian intervention. What is dispositive there is the fact that, in the real world, humanitarian interventions led by the United States do more harm than good. This is why condemnation would be called for even in the unlikely circumstance that the conventional wisdom on Libya turns out to be correct.

Whether the US intervenes unilaterally or through NATO, and whether or not it has UN approval, is also irrelevant, except insofar as cosmetic factors affect public perceptions. The US calls the shots in NATO and, unfortunately, even Russia and China now seem comfortable with NATO being the Security Council’s enforcement agency. No doubt, most members of the United Nations think differently, but who in Washington or London or Paris cares.

Calling the shots is not quite the same as being entirely in control; sometimes the tail wags the dog. In this case, it was Nicolas Sarkozy’s premature belligerence, his settling of accounts with the French Right’s anti-Iraq War past, that forced the US and Britain to stop coddling and start overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi. Germany and Turkey, the other leading NATO military powers, have saner views, but it seems that they have been brought along for the time being. Dissent within NATO is sure to mount as the humanitarian intervention grinds on and America’s allies tire of being used as proxies. In all likelihood, therefore, the US will find itself bogged down in another quagmire. If that happens, the Nobel laureate will have only himself – and his bellicose Secretary of State – to thank.

In the weeks and months to come, it will become harder too for Obama to argue that the killing he has unleashed is intended to save civilian lives. That this war is about regime change was clear from the moment the French extended official recognition to the anti-Qaddafi side. This is a point so obvious that even John McCain gets it. Only liberals don’t, though perhaps they too will finally see the light as "days, not weeks" slides into "months, not years."

On the "bright" side, this latest war is so ill conceived that it just might cause the NATO alliance to start to unravel. It could also make future humanitarian (imperialist) interventions harder to launch. But silver linings, if any, are a long way off. For now, there is only murder and mayhem in the offing, and the likelihood of blowback that even Obama apologists will regret.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.


ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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