Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Obama, Kristol, Libya: The new American military doctrine

It troubles me greatly that I'm on the same side as Bill Kristol with respect to the Libyan intervention, as I've generally come around to supporting it (with severe reservations). As Kristol writes:

The president was unapologetic, freedom-agenda-embracing, and didn't shrink from defending the use of force or from appealing to American values and interests. Furthermore, the president seems to understand we have to win in Libya.

But of course Libya isn't a neocon war. It isn't about American hegemony, American unilateral aggression, or American national self-interest (say, in terms of oil). It's a "war," or whatever you want to call it, sanctioned by the U.N. and the Arab League, that is, a war not waged by a U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" alienating even close allies but a war effectively waged by the international community. And it is largely a humanitarian war, a war to protect innocent civilians from being slaughtered and to provide cover to rebels seeking to bring down one of the must ruthless dictators in the world.

Kristol may be cheering it on, but it isn't his war, and in fact it is a war that is decidedly the antithesis of what he generally purports to support. It's up to him to support it or not, of course, but the success of this war, and he does think "we will" win, would only mean a further defeat for neocon ideology, the refutation of all that he stands for.

Yes, okay, he supposedly stands for "freedom," but does he really? Yes, to a point, but what he really stands for is American imperial univeralism, for the imposition of American values or more specifically neocon values on the rest of world at the point of a sword.

For all the reservations we may have about the intervention in Libya, this is not that -- Libya is not Iraq, nor is it what the neocons want generally, which is for the U.S. to act according to its narrow interests even in direct opposition to the international community. Thankfully, Obama thinks differently:

"We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world," Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.

"It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen."

Obama articulated a broader – if not easily explained — vision of U.S. involvement in future actions, reserving the right to act in the nation's "interests and values" and arguing that Americans "should not be afraid to act." But he also cautioned against unilateral action that would result in bloody, protracted conflict and pronounced the country's days as the world's police force to be over.

He added:

It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right.

In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale... To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.

As president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

I would disagree with one point: The U.S. is not as exceptional as Obama suggests. A lot of countries do not "turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries," and not intervening in Libya does not mean approving of such atrocities.

Otherwise, though, I think he's right -- and was right to act. And is right to be ushering in a new era of military intervention that rejects neocon unilateralism in the pursuit of global hegemony on the one side and pacifism on the other.

War is not a desirable option, but it is unfortunately a necessary one in some circumstances. And, in this case, it has been redefined and taken away from those on the right who have used it to advance their own interests, and who have destroyed America's standing in the world as a force for good.

Maybe this is the Obama Doctrine: a careful balance of self-interest and capacity on one side and the need to act for humanitarian reasons on the other. Whatever it is, it's certainly an improvement on what came before it, and, in Libya, where there has been significant success so far, it would appear to be taking shape.

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