I have a short response to Obama’s Libya speech at The Daily Beast. Suffice it to say, I didn’t like it, and I don’t think it did any of the things Obama needed to do to reassure the public that he and his advisors have a clue what they’re doing. My contribution to the responses published last night had to be brief, so there is still much more to say.
As many others have noted, Obama defined the Libyan war as an expression of Americanism. For years and contrary to all the evidence, many opponents of Obama have denied that he accepted American exceptionalism, and they have tried to interpret everything he has done according to this completely false assumption. These people will have no idea what to make of Obama’s speech. What I didn’t emphasize often enough when correcting these misinterpretations was that we shouldn’t want Obama to embrace American exceptionalism if it means that we are going to have put up with foreign policy idealism and recklessness.
One of the most obnoxious arguments that interventionists have used over the last month is that “America is different” when it comes to intervening in other nations’ conflicts. If that is true, and I don’t accept that it is, this is a flaw to be repaired rather than a virtue to be praised. As far as I can tell, it isn’t true. Americans aren’t any more likely to want to intervene on the other side of the planet to prevent atrocities, but it’s also misleading to conflate refusal to intervene in another country’s conflict with indifference or obliviousness to atrocities. There is something twisted in the idea that the chief way for a nation to express moral concern and compassion for people under attack is through the use of armed violence.
There is a pretense that humanitarian interventionists care more about different nations’ shared humanity, but in practice they seem to have less awareness of shared humanity when it comes to urging military action against foreign governments and their supporters. Once the “bad guys” have been identified, humanitarians suddenly turn into hard-liners for the other side of the conflict and start mimicking the collective punishment arguments that other hawks routinely employ. It was officials in the last humanitarian interventionist administration that enthused about “crushing Serb skulls,” but the attitude today seems to be much the same. What began as a mission to save Benghazi is turning into an occasion for Americans to start rooting for major assaults on Sirte and Tripoli. What seems to concern them most is that the rebel forces aren’t capable of launching those assaults. Sirte may be a Gaddafi stronghold, and people there may be remaining supportive out of tribal loyalties, vested interests, fear, or some combination of the three, but if the U.S., allied and rebel forces end up doing to Sirte what U.S. forces did to Fallujah it will be inexcusable.
Praising a willingness to launch humanitarian interventions as an expression of American uniqueness is no less irritating than any other form of self-congratulation. It is a bit more incoherent when the intervention in question is one that Obama has been at pains to portray as anything other than American-led until last night. Even when it seems that the administration might be trying to extricate itself as quickly as possible from a conflict it mostly wanted to avoid, we still hear the same tedious refrains about “leadership” and America’s special role.
Last night was a liberal expression of the same impulse that drives some people to insist that America is the greatest country in history. Where many mainstream conservative enthusiasts of American exceptionalism define that exceptionalism in terms of being the freest, most prosperous country or the one with the greatest social mobility, some liberals want to define it in terms of superior idealism or morality. It doesn’t make it any better if Obama conceives of this as a struggle to make America more idealistic and moral. In fact, it makes it worse in some ways. It’s one thing to recognize past American mistakes and crimes and vow never to do such things again, but it’s something else entirely to see the use of military force as an appropriate means to expiate past national sins.
Beinart’s response took a particularly odd turn when he wrote this:
That’s what makes his Libya decision powerful. He knows that there are good reasons for Middle Easterners to fear when they see American planes overhead. And yet he is acting to show that it does not have to be that way.
Leaving aside the geographical confusion*, these are very strange sentences. Right now, if you’re a Libyan and you’re not on the side of the rebels, you have some good reasons to fear American planes overhead. Even anti-Gaddafi civilians in cities controlled by Gaddafi’s forces are going to have reason to be afraid of the gunships and tank-killers buzzing overhead. Restrictive rules of engagement, precision weapons, and training notwithstanding, all of the people living in Sirte and Tripoli have good reasons to be afraid. The ease with which humanitarian interventionists seem to forget that they are cheering on the deliberate killing of people who have done nothing to them and theirs is bad enough, but the notion that America is making great moral progress if it uses force to kill the right sorts of people for the right reasons, and especially when the conflict has nothing to do with us, is simply evil.