On Libya, Squishy Aims, and Superpower Status
March 22, 2011 17 Comments
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.