Thursday, March 31, 2011

Two views of Obama's Libya War

Three, actually. The third being Gene Lyons' cautious defense of Obama's action with particular reference to his Republican critics, Obama gambles his presidency Salon 03/30/2011. It's important to remember that this war has many aspects. There is the policy question of whether it's a good idea, which involves both strategic questions (is the current "global domination" strategy a good one?) and tactical ones (does this war make sense in terms of the current strategy?). There are also partisan (and intra-party) political issues, such as whether the various criticisms being directed at the Libya War make sense, and what they say about how other political players would handle this or similar situations.

As Gene writes of the bold Maverick McCain, "Bellicose chatter has simply become a reflex with McCain. If somebody told him global warming could be halted by bombing Antarctica, he'd start believing in it."

The two views of the title are focused on longer-term issues that relate to the Obama Administration's thinking and behavior: Steven Metz, An Obama Doctrine? Or: Why the president's speech reminded me of Donald Rumsfeld. The New Republic 03/28/2011; and, David Bromwich, The CIA, the Libyan Rebellion, and the President Huffington Post 03/31/2011.

Metz sees two key aspects of the amorphous entity that he and other commentators are starting to call the Obama Doctrine as expressed in Monday's Libya (non-)War speech. First is:

...the belief that the net effect of the Arab Spring is positive—that the operations of history are taking the Middle East toward better governance, greater respect for human rights, and, presumably, increased security and stability.
The second relates to the striking tone of restraint in how Obama describes the Libya War, which seems to daily become more of a contrast to its actual conduct:
The flipside of this view is the second, implicit theme in Obama's speech, which is that if the United States embraces the Arab Spring too tightly and attempts to dominate it, the results would be negative, perhaps even disastrous. Better to tolerate some things that the United States might not prefer than to attempt top control the revolution.
I've been impressed with David Bromwich's close observations of Obama. In this piece, he's engaging in some informed speculation that the United States and Britain may have been playing a bigger role all along in the Libyan uprising than we've been thinking. He observes:

President Obama, who had traveled far already from his origins when he reinstituted military tribunals and defended the treatment of Bradley Manning, is now seen to have cast his lot with a long history of secret wars and overthrows and kinetic military operations extending back to Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Vietnam in 1963, and Nicaragua in 1984.

However well-founded his speculation leading up to that may be (or not) - he's stretching when he tries to guess at what Tom Friedman is not telling us - his observations on Obama's concept of his foreign policy, so far as it can be determined from observation of Obama and what's in the public record, are worth considering. This seems fair enough, addressing the Obama's weird dancing around calling this a war:

Many things President Obama said on Monday were wishful. The affirmation that NATO "has taken command" was wishful. So, too, was the picture of the United States "for generations" as a unique force for justice and courageous sacrifice, in a world otherwise populated by the tyrannous, the craven, the selfish, and the weak. Many other things Obama said were half true: the suggestion for example that the consideration at the front of his mind when he gave his speech was the safety of American jets and American ships far beyond the reach of Libyan gunnery. But we have now, in this baffling administration, passed out of the twilight of ambiguity. We have entered the land of lies. It is a region where many comments add up to no comment, and where every partial truth must be parsed for legalistic reservations folded into fugitive turns of grammar.
This one is also well-founded, addressing the arrogance of power that is a chronic problem for US foreign policy:

Delusions of grandeur, which have always been the lower layer of President Obama's wishful commandments, were made more perilous in this case by delusions of convenience. The president likes things clean. But there is nothing clean about what we are doing in Libya.
In his opening paragraphs, Bromwich falls into the lingo of mindreading, when he tells us how Obama understands things "in his mind." But careless phrasing aside, it does address something important about how Obama sees the power of his own rhetoric:

One of Barack Obama's first acts as president was to say that Guantanamo must go. It did not go. Soon after, he said that the Israeli settlements must go. They expanded. Obama made his peace in the end with Guantanamo and the Israeli settlements. He restarted the military tribunals at Guantanamo -- a feature of the Bush-Cheney constitution which he once had explicitly deplored -- and recently went out of his way to defend the Guantanamo-like abuse (compulsory nakedness and sleep deprivation) inflicted on an American prisoner, Bradley Manning, in the Marine Corps brig at Quantico. One had come to think of "X must go" assertions by Obama as speculative prefaces to a non-existent work. His words, in his mind, are actions. When he speaks them once or twice, he has done what he was put here to do. If the existing powers defy his wishes, he embraces the powers and continues on his way.

The Egyptian protest of January and February saw a new siege of wishful commandments and reversals by the president. He told Mubarak to go. Then he told him to stay a while. Mubarak said he would stay, but after a time, he went, and in the mind of Obama, it appears, there was a relation of cause and effect between his initial request and the final result. He was consequently emboldened. [my emphasis]
I would suggest that the foreign and domestic versions of this could be understood in distinct ways. Lies and deceit are understood on all sides to be standard operating procedure in foreign affairs, along with spying and various other habits that would be considered disreptable in daily life. The American national security establishment tends to have a very elevated estimation of the power of the United States to direct events in other countries. So it's not surprising that a President would easily acquire an inflated sense of the power of his own words in foreign affairs - although the failure of his words to affect Israeli settlement policy that Bromwich mentions should give Obama cause for reflection on that score.

It seems to me that the domestic version may be a clue that Obama is operating on an notion that Nixon followed, which is that liberals were much easier to pacify with symbolism and rhetoric than conservatives are. Obama held fast to his campaign promise to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Other promises like closing Guantanamo, not so much.

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