In the end, though, the only thing that is going to matter to the American people is if Qaddafi goes, or is rendered forgettable. The polls show people want regime change. If the rebels regroup, and are strengthened, as seems to be happening, that will help shift perceptions of the intervention. But even as the U.S. backs off, and what remains of the operation proceeds under NATO leadership, intellectually and emotionally, America has taken a side in the conflict. And Americans like to win."Seems," here, is everything.
This is one of those speeches that was more for the experts than the American people. An address to the nation that will not resolve anything for them. The only thing that will make this intervention seem wise is if Qaddaffi goes, or rendered so isolated and powerless that he can be forgotten. (Should he go soon, that would make Obama seem very wise, indeed.)
That Franke-Ruta is right about the political fallout, I can't deny. This is the consensus, at least, that we can all agree on: if this situation is resolved in a way that seems like a win-- if we end up with a conclusion that can be spun as victory-- it will be good for Barack Obama, the Democrats, modern day Kiplings like Samantha Powers, and the continuing prosecution of the Forever War. But I beg you to consider the distance between our rhetoric of humanitarianism and what Franke-Ruta, and just everybody else, are saying for Obama to call this a victory.
First, please do consider Matt Yglesias and his pointing out that good consequences can emerge from bad policy and create bad precedents. (Yglesias has been consistently great on this topic.) Now think about why we are saying we are going to war: for the humanitarian reasons of protecting the Libyan rebels from slaughter at Benghazi, and as is now inarguable, of removing the dictator Qaddafi from power. Does it not strike anybody else that the political goal of claiming a "win" can be achieved without anything like long-term humanitarian gains for Libyans?
Everyone should read this history of humanitarian intervention from Adam Curtis at the BBC. The thing about humanitarian gains is that they are always conditional and temporal. What looks like victory in the short term sometimes looks like defeat in the long term. This is true simply on the level of achieving better conditions for the people you're trying to help, but it is especially true given the sad nature of human conflict. Consider this excerpt:
But Kouchner quickly discovered that victims could be very bad. There was an extraordinary range of ethnic groups in Kosovo.
Roman Catholic Serbs
Serbian-speaking Muslim Egyptians
Albanian-speaking Muslim Gypsies - Ashkalis
Albanian-speaking Christian Gypsies - Goranis
And even - Pro-Serbian Turkish-speaking Turks
They all had vendettas with each other - which meant that they were both victims and horrible victimizers at the same time. It began to be obvious that getting rid of evil didn't always lead to the simple triumph of goodness.
Which became horribly clear in Iraq in 2003.I am on the side of the Libyan rebels in comparison to Qaddafi. (Taking sides with them does not mean willing to support aerial bombing campaigns ostensibly in their favor, and the fact that this isn't plain as day only serves to underscore the sickness of our discourse on foreign policy.) But that does not mean that the Libyan rebels are "good" and that the outcome of their possible victory will be desirable. What terrifies me, and what should scare you, too, is the fact that the political fallout for the Obama administration and all of the hawks in the media will have nothing to do with the long term humanitarian picture for Libya.
Like Gore Vidal said, we live in the United States of Amnesia. Our news cycle moves fast, our attention span is short, and nobody cares about yesterday's news. I think anyone can imagine a situation where the rebels defeat Qaddafi and a new government is put into place, and the western world congratulates itself on a job well done, as Obama's approval ratings soar. Liberal hawks and neocons get even more entrenched in their views and self-satisfied. Meanwhile, Libyans will continue to wrestle with the consequences for decades to come. And the results could be all kinds of bloody and terrible-- perhaps we might even call it humanitarian disaster. With Iraq, we were temporarily forced to deal with the long-term consequences because we were occupying the country. Now, even though we still have 50,000 troops there, our attention has gone elsewhere-- while the constant violence and near total political breakdown continues.
This is a very frightening turn for democracy, when long-term human consequences of our actions are so divided from long-term political consequences. Whether you are happy, unhappy, or indifferent to our recent health care reform, we can be sure that Americans will observe the consequences of that change and their attitudes will have political weight. No such certainty exists regarding Libya and its outcomes. What will be remembered is the shallow, short-term rhetoric of victory, not the mature, unflinching and long-term understanding that genuine humanitarianism requires. Our regard for humanitarianism has passion but no depth.
Will the architects of this war still be talking about it in a year or three or five? I doubt it. And so political reality becomes further and further divided from humanitarian reality, in a conflict waged on purely humanitarian grounds. The only word for this is folly.