On Libya, Squishy Aims, and Superpower Status

Libya is tragic, but also, closer to home, instructive. To the extent Americans will recognize the desperately difficult trade-offs of projecting American military power — to the extent Americans will hereafter decline simplistic characterizations of “pro-war” versus “anti-war” positions — we will be more mature as a nation.

There is no even remote challenger to America’s status as sole superpower. Our economy, even as currently enfeebled, is larger than the next four combined: Japan, Germany, China, and the United Kingdom. Our navy controls all the oceans on the planet. Our naval force exceeds all of the rest of the world’s naval force, combined. Our military capacity, on the ground and in the water and the air, enormously exceeds any possible challenger for decades to come.

It is natural then, that the world is invariably curious about what America thinks. It is also natural, unfortunately, that the world assumes America will take care of the geopolitical problem du jour, and then be able to carp.

American superpower status is the first in human history to exercise that status without physical imperial designs. Apart from the plots we asked to bury our dead, we sought no American real estate in Europe or Asia after World War I or World War II. To the contrary, with the Marshall Plan and other far-sighted programs after World War II, we sought to rebuild the countries and economies of our former enemies as sovereign and thriving nations — and in the case of Germany and Japan (see above regarding leading world economies), our efforts bore enormous fruit.

More American modesty is needed, to be sure — our history on the American continent itself has at times been shameful — but it should never overshadow the simple ennobling fact that we are the first, and continuing, planetary superpower fully capable of conquering and occupying, that doesn’t. That is occasion for national pride. That is what America has contributed to a new global paradigm. It is possible to drain a cesspool and promote a better sovereignty –even one occasionally at odds with American preferences.

The controversy over what Muslim countries do to other religions and to Muslims who convert to another religion is sad — but nevertheless an instance of American honor, a commitment foremost to establishing democratic Muslim authority over populations accustomed to Muslim despotic control.

And let us make no mistake. American power has repeatedly benefited Muslims.

  • Kuwait, 1991, in which we liberated a Muslim regime, permitting thereafter its full sovereignty, from a murderous and occupying Iraqi force;
  • Bosnia, 1995, Kosovo, 1999, in which we, when no one else was willing to act, belatedly but finally forestalled genocide against Muslims;
  • Afghanistan, 2001, when we overthrew the Taliban, sympathetic to and harboring Al Queda terrorists, and brutalizing its people under a distorted view of Sharia that countenanced, among other atrocities, mutilating women deemed insufficiently modest or obeisant; and
  • Iraq, 2003, in which we rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his two thug sons, who had brutalized other nations and his own people, most especially Shiites and Kurds — upon whom he had spewed chemical weapons of mass destruction, as he had earlier done to Iranians in his war for regional hegemony.

No new American real estate has resulted from any of this massive outpouring of American treasure and blood. The net result is that many more Muslims are alive and many more Muslims are free than would have been the case without American intervention.

What is it then that makes us now quiver at the prospect of another war in a Muslim country? Have we anything to be ashamed of? Have we anything other than to be proud of? More Muslims are alive and more Muslims are freer today because of America.

But that does not necessarily dictate our response in Libya. If it is possible to step back and permit other nations to do what must be done against a despotic Muslim regime, then we should do so. Not because we couldn’t do it swiftly and well on behalf of Muslims pleading for our assistance, but because of geopolitics. If America is doing less policing, but the salutary policing gets done, all to the good.

America may be the sole superpower, but it is not the sole power, and it is not the sole country, or coalition of countries, capable of responding to a Muslim plea of assistance.

America did what it needed to do — assuming Gadhafi is indeed an enemy — in leading the airstrikes designed to take out Libyan anti-aircraft and communications capabilities. Europe could not do it alone, thanks to ever-shriveled European defense budgets. If we’re indeed prepared to hand over the lead to European countries soon, and the end-game is clear, all to the good.

But we have committed an act of war against Libya. We must therefore be very clear about our ends and commit to achieving them — else we should never have committed an act of war against Libya. The luxury of back-benching in a war does not belong to a superpower. We may, or more likely will not, be credited with positive results, but every negative result will certainly be attributed to us.

And that is fair geopolitical accountability, because the simple fact is that we could, if we wished, dictate any result. The only question is what we wish.

American distaste for war since Vietnam is not so much distaste for projection of American military power as disgust with squishy aims. Define the ends and achieve them. No one doubts our capacity, only our will. Once the ends are defined, they can be fairly debated, and Americans can weigh in on whether the end is just. That debate fairly settled, only a pacifist fraction of Americans dispute the resolute achievement of the end.

Ironically, President Obama’s approach to Libya bears a striking resemblance to Vietnam. Decline to define the end, and keep hoping it gets resolved, while committing acts of war against a sovereign nation. Squishy aims and bombing is a failure to appreciate history, and an embarrassing projection of superpower power.

Let us hope the result is European capacity to achieve what we decline to achieve, or we will pay dearly, and we may in either case. That is the burden of superpower status.

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17 Responses to On Libya, Squishy Aims, and Superpower Status

  1. Bruce Castleberry says:

    Completely opposed to this intervention. This, to me, is a “fireable offense.” We’re not the world’s cop.

    • Well, yes, we sort of are the world’s cop, by massive default. No one else is, most assuredly not the United Nations. I get your point, and agree that anytime we can get other nations to do the policing, that’s probably better. But “policing,” in neighborhoods and the globe, is a good thing — especially when exercised benignly, without imperial design. There are some cesspools, and they’re cesspools that threaten global stability in many ways — never mind the prospect of genocide or more limited mass slaughter. Injustice and murder always matters to me, wherever it happens. And the complicated question then is whether injustice and murder are fairly preventable without consequences that outweigh the prevention of innocent death and injustice. That’s never easy to answer, but equally never a question from which a superpower can shy away.

  2. Oh boy. Head spinning.
    American power has repeatedly benefited Muslims.

    I am going to be completely selfish and ask, “at what cost to us?” Afghanistan made sense because we were attacked. Iraq still doesn’t make sense to me. No one was crying out for our help, like Libya. We don’t even have our own house in order, yet we want to clean up everyone else’s.

    But we have committed an act of war against Libya. We must therefore be very clear about our ends and commit to achieving them — else we should never have committed an act of war against Libya.

    ITA with this. The minute we launched that tomahawk was the minute we entered this. What Is our “ends,” though? That’s what I don’t get. We’re handing this over to NATO (supposedly). Is that the “end?” I hope so, but I doubt it.

    • Thanks Spinny, and spinning heads are all the rage now. I’m unclear on how you conclude that no one in Iraq was crying out for our help. I think if you polled Libyans now and Iraqis before our intervention, you’d find an equivalent plea for help. In fact, Shiites and Kurds desperately sought our help after the first Gulf War — and one of the reasons nation-building and trust in Iraq were such “surprisingly” difficult undertakings after the second Gulf War is because the Iraqi population opposed to Saddam Hussein felt betrayed by America after the first Gulf War because we let him do what he wished in reprisal against populations he deemed disloyal. We let a despicable despot continue in murderous power, when it was easily within our power to depose him. There is no difference between the Libyan people now and the Iraqi people then. I’d even suggest the Iraqi people had a somewhat better claim in their plea for rescue. Gadhafi murders Libyans. Saddam Hussein murdered Iraqis, Iranians, and Kuwaitis, with, in the first two instances, chemical weapons of mass destruction. Both despots are repugnant. The question is what to with repugnant despots. If there is consensus that they are repugnant despots, then I believe they should be taken out, that every aspiring repugnant despot should know, this may be your fate, that many lives may therefore be saved, and many otherwise crippled bodies be spared the horror of a repugnant despot.

      • Point taken.

        We let a despicable despot continue in murderous power, when it was easily within our power to depose him.

        For me, this is the point. Even before the first gulf war, Saddam was gassing Kurds. With the stuff we gave him. He was still our friend then, so we looked the other way . We didn’t get involved until he started invading Kuwait. No longer friends, so we have to protect the Kurds without looking like we’re breaking up with him. We could have deposed him then, but we didn’t. He was still useful.

        The question is what to with repugnant despots. If there is consensus that they are repugnant despots, then I believe they should be taken out,

        Absolutely. But we won’t if they are deemed useful.

  3. Steve Ball says:

    Kendrick, I agree… mostlly. I think if we commit an act of war against Libya, it had to be with the agreement of congress. I don’t like the executive office having this kind of power no matter how righteous the action may be. Even GW went to congress before both Iraq and Afghanistan with his plans to invade. I also think if we are the perpetrators of this action, we should not hide behind the skirts of NATO. I don’t like giving up our authority to a world order. I’m not so sure we shouldn’t just leave the world to the world and stay out of it. It’s their civil war. Let them wage it. There was a time for us to take out this despot. We blew it. Now is not the time. His actions against Americans warranted immediate action against him, and him alone. Not the Libyan people. In the end, we can only do 4 things. We can do the right thing right, the right thing wrong, the wrong thing right, or the wrong thing wrong. I think we’re doing the right thing wrong. IMHO/WADR

    • Steve, you raise a fascinating point, quite apart from the merits of intervention, that I’ve avoided so far because I’m still mulling it: this administration committed an act of war with no congressional input whatever, much less approval. As you note, George Bush obtained congressional approval for both the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. Head spinning a bit. This presumption of executive power raises a lot of domestic questions.

      I disagree, however, with your suggestion that we should “leave the world to the world and stay out of it.” We’re in it. A superpower doesn’t have that choice. We can certainly conclude that this or that conflict does not warrant our intervention — and there will be consequences, as in Rwanda — but we can never conclude that we can simply “stay out of it” and suffer no consequences. To him whom much is given, much is expected. Like it or not, the world looks to us for guidance on difficult decisions that must be made. We’re involved in every part of the globe, hopefully as a force for good, and we never have the luxury of opting out. Many inside and outside America might wish us to shrink to a country the size and consequence of Venezuela, so that we could bluster and scheme and pick our battles, but we haven’t. We’re the sole superpower on the planet. That status requires maturity, great care in our decision-making, and sometimes sacrifice for the global good.

  4. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I’m not uncomfortable with a world order at all. When the U.S. recognizes and legitimizes the reason for being part of a group of nations who supports a world order, that can only be a good thing. We’re not giving up our authority here; there’s no doubt that the majority of NATO countries recognize our authority. The U.S. is demonstrating that it can be separate and together in helping communities fight despots. It does, I suppose, come down to whether “we shouldn’t just leave the world to the world and stay out of it.” I choose the alternative because that’s the U.S. I can admire.

    • Agreed SDS. And “helping communities fight despots” is something we’re uniquely equipped to do, even if we cannot, or should not, do it everywhere that might warrant it. Every despot taken down saves human lives and liberties. Let us always be the unpredictable people who may, or may not, go after despots, and watch the civilizing influence on the world’s despots. It is only the certainty that there will be no American reprisal that empowers despots to kill and oppress wantonly.

  5. Uri Breitman says:

    I can only recommend “Legacy of Ashes”, a fascinating book about America and the CIA.
    The books proves the following points:
    1) The U.S. government has always applied force for financial gain (influence, power, oil, cash)
    2) The CIA has toppled regimes, bribed, killed and sabotaged, terrorized and manipulated – all in the name of American power, interests and empirial desires
    3) Muslim states have all the reasons in the world to depside USA
    4) Iran & Iraq are classic examples of absurd intervention, when nobody in the administartion can properly prove that the USA has improved anything in the lives of those people.
    5) The USA has supported the rise of Saddam Hussein. The USA has financed his regime. The USA has made sure he stayed in power. The USA decided to finish him. It’s all power-play.
    6) Iran has been an American-British puppet, untill it decided to end the charade and expel the Western invaders. The US government doesn’t like this state of mind. So, again, it’s all a game of dominance.

    Read “Legacy of Ashes” from pulitzer-winning author, Tim Weiner, and find out the truth about America’s foreign “policy”. The book has won many awards, and was even translated to Hebrew.

    You many even finally understand why JFJ was shot to death (he had it coming, I can tell you that).

    • Uri, thanks for the visit. Those are spectacularly sweeping and harsh assessments to base upon a single book about a single agency (the CIA) of the United States government — and not even the primary agency charged with U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps you were a bit too eager to see these conclusions? Moreover, I haven’t read the book, but certain of the words you use could not possibly accurately describe a book purporting to be serious scholarship — e.g., “Muslim states have all the reasons in the world to despise USA” — words that sound like a high school intern’s submission to Al Jazeera. Moreover, I’m quite certain, when and if I do ever read the book, I will not conclude, as no sane American would conclude, that “JFK had it coming.” Though I know your currency is sometimes shock value, I don’t think you fully appreciate the breath-taking arrogance and insensitivity of such a statement to American ears.

      I don’t know whether the book is serious scholarship, but a detailed and devastating review published on the CIA’s website suggests that it is not.

      Unquestionably, the intelligence agencies of America and every country of any consequence in the 20th and 21st centuries have done some dastardly things. That particular milieu does not often conduce to high-minded moral philosophy. In fact, that milieu may, more than any other in geopolitics, reflect the term “necessary evils,” with an unhealthy dollop of blunders. But, in my opinion, it is shallow to leap from one disputed history of the CIA, whatever its scholarly credentials, to a sweeping assault on decades of American foreign policy.

  6. Uri Breitman says:

    You know my style is often brutal, no breaking news in that department.
    Anyways, the “Legacy of Ashes” book has won the national book award for non-fiction (2007), I guess that means something. It also won glowing reviews in the New York Times & the Washington Post.

    The CIA website is the LAST place to look for objective analysis of the book. Why? since the book uncovers spectacular blunders of the CIA, including direct criticism of every aspect of the CIA’s management, actions and strategy.

    Of course I’m not basing my opinions on this book alone. It would be ridiculous to do that.
    However, in the case of Muslim states, the average American knows nothing about the true actions of his elected administration. In reality (which is harsh), the White House has acted like a very smart terrorist organization, using the world’s states as chewing gum for financial interests.

    Did you know that Japan’s prime minister was on the CIA payroll for decades?
    Did you ever know that the same goes for Jordan’s king?
    Did you know that the CIA has supported Saddam’s party and helped it seize control of Iraq?
    Did you know that the CIA has organized a coup in Syria?
    Did you know that JFK ordered the CIA to murder Castro?
    Did you know that JFK’s murderer know of JFK’s plans of murder?
    Did you know that Castro avoided death by simply being cautious of the things he drank?
    Did you know that JFK’s murder came as no surprise to Castro?
    Did you know that JFK himself ordered a mafia-man to handle one part of the Casto assasination plan?
    That’s why I say he had it coming.
    If someone is planning to murder a leader of a foreign country, he shouldn’t be surprised when his own people try to murder him.

    “Legacy of Ashes” is not the only book uncovering dark secrets from the U.S. archives. But it’s one of the best I’ve ever read.

    Not scholary, you say? I hear you. Tim Weiner is a journalist. His trade is to uncover hidden documents. He’s not a historian. But yet, his book has been praised all over the world. Personally, I’m not the same person after reading this devastating piece of super-journalism.

    • You’re not the same person?? Uri, I love you, but you’ve always disliked America. When I first met you in 1984, not too long after meeting your sister who would become my wife, you were about ten, and already spouting anti-American bile. Smart bile, but bile. It was a bit uncomfortable frankly — that and your anger over me eating a chocolate pudding that you thought belonged to you. Somehow, you learned to speak and write the amazing accent-free English you do by watching American television, but absorbed something powerfully anti-American in the process. Or maybe it’s your default relation to power, and your relentless agenda to demonize the exercise of power, whether American or Israeli. I get that. But have you read any “definitive histories” of the intelligence agencies of the Soviet Union, or Syria, or Venezuela, or Brazil, or France, or China, or (dare I say) Israel? I suspect if you did, you’d not be the same person (and still the same person) when you finished, and that your hostility to geopolitical power would persist in much the same fashion it has since you were very young.

  7. Uri Breitman says:

    This is the moment of truth: ever since I was a small kid, I LOVED America.
    I still LOVE America.
    Because I CARE so much about America, that’s why I criticize the mistakes and the crimes of USA.
    Same thing goes for Israel: because I care so deeply for my country, I do my best to set it right.
    I don’t like Libya, for example, so I don’t have much to say about their stupid despot (Gaddafi).

    It’s really the right time to set the record straight: USA is my favorite country, maybe after UK, Sweden and Holland. I’d love to see a better America.
    The people who love America don’t want to see it destroyed by stupid leaders like JFK, Nixon or Bush.
    The same people who love America are not impressed by Obama’s speeches, and are not blinded by the personal charm of Clinton.

    Russia is being led by one man: Putin. He should have been removed from power a long time ago.
    China is being run by a corrupt party, that has no connection to communism whatsoever.
    India is a beautiful democracy, a great example for other states.
    USA has very deep flaws in its political system. It is far from being a perfect democracy.
    It also has many dark secrets.

    That’s why I like books like “Legacy of Ashes”. It was written by an American author who truly loves his country. This guy doesn’t like to see his country destroyed by stupid decisions.

    You wrote: “have you read any “definitive histories” of the intelligence agencies of the Soviet Union, or Syria, or Venezuela, or Brazil, or France, or China, or (dare I say) Israel?”
    The Soviet Union was a complete disgrace. Syria is a primitive oligarchy. Venezuela was never a super-power, so they haven’t made a big difference in the world, except the fact that they have been another victim in America’s cruel foreign policy (you should read what the CIA did to Venezuela).

    Uncovering the dark secrets of the United States is something that every patriotic American sould care about, and encourage. People like JFK and Nixon should be exposed for the bastards they truly were. The electing public should know all the facts about his chosen ones.

    So it’s all a matter of caring about a country. If you care, you want the truth. If you don’t care, then you shouldn’t read any book about anything.

    • “USA is my favorite country, maybe after UK, Sweden and Holland.” Okay, I just have to tell you how hilarious that sounds — not in a bad way at all, just in locating it in a particular left-right dispute in America. Uri, I respect your moment of truth, and I particularly respect your framework of loving, and therefore caring to criticize. That’s honorable, and you are honorable. And here’s my pitch. You say “people like JFK and Nixon should be exposed for the bastards they truly were.” Okay. But if you applied your piercing gaze to any world leader in the 20th or any century, they would all be human bastards. There is not a single president — or leader of any world power of consequence — who has not been the subject of excoriating biographies, horrific inventories of their misdeeds. It’s part of the dance. It’s not possible to do politics and emerge unscathed. And then the flip side: loving is also celebrating, choosing to see what is good and just and honorable. If you applied some fraction of your considerable critical powers to what America and Israel have done well (especially compared to others), the result would be a magnificent labor of love. I don’t ask you to become a drone defender of America and Israel — just from time to time to apply your critical powers to what they do well, to balance your shrill criticisms with occasional appreciation for what America and Israel, in the community of nations, manage to get right. There was never a love, worth the name, that was relentlessly negative. And indeed, the criticisms carry a little more credibility when they include the occasional compliment.

  8. Uri Breitman says:

    “they would all be human bastards”
    Clinton, for example, was sometimes naive and simplistic, but not a bastard.
    Obama, so far, is trying to minimize “bastardism” to a very low level. I give him credit for that.
    Some Israeli leaders have not been bastards in my view – for example, Levi Eshkol.

    “It’s part of the dance”
    Some of the world leaders are guilty of serious crimes. Some have managed to avoid doing them. We have to be able to tell which is which. Not all leaders are the same.

    “It’s not possible to do politics and emerge unscathed”
    It’s one thing to make dirty political deals, and plan the murder of Castro. There’s a big difference. If you’re JFK and you’re hiring the mob to kill Castro, this is not part of your job as a president. This is criminal.

    “loving is also celebrating, choosing to see what is good and just and honorable”
    I love American movies, books, music. I pay the artists my money. I send out checks and electronic payments for the people in America who do good (as opposed to murder). When I buy something in America, I support that something. But I don’t support genocide, or assasinations, or war-lords.

    And seriously, even the CIA has its bright side: the agency has managed to minimize conflicts sometimes, to give the white house crucial information to avoid wars. The CIA has also managed to some good, once in a while. But the people who did the crimes are not behind bars – they got rich and they died of natural causes. That should cause unrest.

  9. Pingback: Obama’s Bizarre Illegal War in Libya « The Prince and The Little Prince

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