Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Walter Russell Mead sees a "Wilsonian" war in Libya

Walter Russell Mead has a decent post on the Libya War, The Shores of Tripoli: Our Latest Wilsonian War The American Interest 03/30/2011. But he continues his more-than-a-little-aggravating habit of describing neoconservative/militarist foreign policy positions as "Jacksonian." This comment from James Lindsay, Is Operation Odyssey Dawn Constitutional? Obama versus the Framers CFR.org 03/25/2011 provides some useful historical perspective:

In 1798, at the start of the so-called Quasi-War with France, John Adams called Congress into a special session "to consult and determine on such measures as in their wisdom shall be deemed meet for the safety and welfare of the United States." When Andrew Jackson, not known as a shrinking violet when it came to presidential power, wanted to force France to pay damage claims that dated back to the Napoleonic era, he did not order the U.S. military into action. He instead asked Congress to pass a law "authorizing reprisals upon French property." Congress said no, and Jackson let the issue drop. When the Chilean government refused to apologize in 1891 after a mob killed two American sailors, Benjamin Harrison asked Congress "to take such action as may be deemed appropriate." If you don't remember the U.S.-Chilean war of 1891, it’s because Congress never authorized hostilities and the crisis passed. [my emphasis]
That hardly justifies regarding warmongering and Presidential usurpation of Congressional war powers as "Jacksonian."

Leaving that fault aside, Mead has some good comments on the Libya War:

The Libyan adventure is a lot of things: a noble effort to protect innocent civilians from horrifying goons, an experiment in a new kind of indirect American leadership, a last desperate throw of the dice by a hyperactive French president whose people increasingly loathe him, an attempt by flustered Arab establishmentarians to get on the right side of popular fury, a demonstration of Britain’s enduring if tortured moralism, a slugging match in the sand, and a nailbiting distraction for a White House that has repeatedly failed to convince voters that it is 'focused like a laser' on the economy and has much more to lose if this goes bad than it has to win if things work.

But there is one thing it won’t be, even if it "works": the start of a new age of multilateral cooperation under the rule of law. The UN-blessed response to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait failed to start the new age of peace, collective security and law; similarly the liberation of Libya is a fluke not a trend.
The US-French-British usage of the UN Resolutions on Libya is likely to make Russia and China less enthusiastic about endorsing any such actions in the future for the reasons he explains:

Russia and China were unhappy enough with the idea that the UN could authorize an attack on a member government to challenge its domestic policy that they abstained. Hardly a surprise — both governments can easily imagine circumstances under which they would have to get down and dirty with domestic malcontents, and should Russia need to kill some more Chechens or China spill some more blood in Tienanmien Square some day, they don’t want a bunch of interfering busybodies poking around. But Qaddafi is such an unattractive figure, his threats were so blood curdling, and, perhaps not least, the prospect that the western powers might overreach and expose themselves was so deliciously attractive that they decided to sit back and let the West give war a chance. [my emphasis]
In the Realist school of foreign policy theory, it is normal and effectively inevitable that lesser powers will seek to reduce the relative power of a "hegemon," which the US is in the Realist view under our post-Cold War foreign policy strategy of global dominance. You don't have to be an adherent of the Realist view to imagine that China and Russia both took into consideration when they abstained on the UN Security Council vote rather than exercised their veto power that in intervening in Libya the US, France and Britain would "overreach and expose themselves" and thereby weaken their relative power and influence in the world more quickly.

Although if China or Russia is looking to someday become a world hegemon in the way the US is today, they might want to think carefully how much of an advantage is really is to be fighting wars in multiple countries over "humanitarian" concerns, oil, "Al Qa'ida," terrorism and whatever our other official reasons are this week. The leaders in Russia and China probably think Qaddafi is a bad guy, too, in some way or other. But do they really want to take on the American role of leading the charge to take out such Bad Guys? It sounds like the foreign policy version of Tom Sawyer's friends thinking it would be grand fun to paint Tom's fence for him.

Mead also notes that the Arab League and the African Union may also take a closer look the next time the US, France and/or Britain ask them to provide diplomatic cover for a Western military intervention. As Mead puts it imagining their perspective, "Give the old imperialists an inch of legal standing and they'll take a mile of turf."

But then, the neocons and Cheney militarist don't care about diplomatic cover. To most of them, unilateralism is far better than a multinational coalition, much less the United Nations, which they generally regard with the same hatred as the Old Right isolationists at the John Birch Society and the Ludwig Von Mises Institute. As Mead notes, "Human Rights Watch can’t start wars on its own." And in the Libya War, neocons who want to validate wars against Iran and Syria are happy to cheer this one on, all the while pointing out the problems of limited engagement and preaching the virtues of robust regime change, i.e., using American troops just like in the grand Iraqi adventure.

Then there's the Cheney crowd's main concern:

On top of that is the oil question. While there are a lot of Americans who think war for oil is immoral, there are plenty more who think that oil, that necessary driver of our economy and the condition of our prosperity, is one of the few things worth fighting about — and a much better reason for war than helping to put one gang of thieves in while kicking another one out.
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