Towards an “Obama Doctrine”: the Efficient Hegemon

I’ve recently acquired a decent respect for Joe Scarborough. He seems, to a certain extent, to defy easy labeling as another mouth of the hydra-headed, but uniformly extreme, Republican Party (e.g.). But that respect has its limits.

In a Politico op-ed, Scarborough asks where the liberal outrage is over Libya — he apparently reads neither the influential Greenwald, nor the indignant Sullivan — and wonders how we can morally justify the Libya intervention, but not the Iraq War.

While one can make the moral argument that countries can be attacked strictly on humanitarian grounds, that argument is laughable when it comes to Libya.

How can the left call for the ouster of Muammar Qadhafi for the sin of killing hundreds of Libyans when it opposed the war waged against Saddam Hussein? During Saddam’s two decades in Iraq, he killed more Muslims than anyone in history and used chemical weapons against his own people and neighboring states. [. . .]

If Obama and his liberal supporters believed Qadhafi’s actions morally justified the Libyan invasion, why did they sit silently by for 20 years while Saddam killed hundreds of thousands?

The article pays lip service to the painfully obvious distinction — as a military action, the Libya expedition is both fundamentally different from, and substantially smaller than Iraq — but doesn’t follow the logic to its conclusion. The decision of when to use military force for humanitarian reasons depends on two very different values: what we’d like to do, and what we can do. Scarborough’s point about liberal hypocrisy only materializes if we equate the two values. That methodology of conflict would partially explain the rush to war in Iraq, but it’s an odd way to plan foreign policy. In fact, it’s cheating: the political science equivalent of assuming a frictionless vacuum. To make an equally absurd point, why did Bush invade Iraq in 2003, when he could have “just as easily” invaded China and installed an American proconsul in Hu Jintao’s place, wiping out the national debt in the process?!?

Especially in war and foreign policy, moral calculus matters. To that point, it’s material to note that the price tag on the Libya expedition comes in, so far, at just 0.07757404% of the staggering bill for Operation Iraqi Freedom. And that’s using the conservative, February estimate, valuing the Iraq War at just $709 billion. That took math: comparing the cost in American lives is a considerably easier task. For any value of “x,” 0 is precisely 0% of x.

Asking what wars an invincible, fully paid-for military would fight is just a distraction. What Scarborough should ask is, is the President doing the best work possible with the military resources available to us? That’s a tough call. But at least it’s a useful question.



  1. Are you contending that the low cost in money and lives right now is evidence that this war was a good idea? Are you assuming our involvement will be over shortly?

  2. Both questions are answered in the affirmative :)

    1. This sounds like the Clinton approach to foreign policy i.e. cheap and easy wars are no big deal and require minimal forethought. Unfortunately there’s nothing ‘easy’ about the Middle East and our involvement is likely to either be prolonged by the oppositions’s constant need for support or we will be blamed for the eventual slaughter if we just try to create a stalemate. I don’t think many of you liberals have really thought through the implications of what we are involved with.

      1. I have, and I am no more a fan of this escapade then Iraq or even what Afghanistan devolved to. Like it or not, the more military action we as a nation take against Muslim countries (no matter which form of dictatorship they have) the more that action will be seen as unilateral support of Israel, and as further indignation against the region, which in turn drives further radicalization against the U.S. Many of the conflicts now breaking out are really the result of the artificial carving up of the Mid East and North Africa by Europeans who wanted to control oil production and populations. Those construct could only work under dictatorial control and that control has run its historical course.

        While I am saddened beyond words that innocent civilians (and those fighting for real freedom) are the victims of the Libyan jets, there are and will be many other places where similar atrocities are done daily and the U.S. takes no intervention. We get more oil from Canada then Libya, so this is not about American strategic interests. This is about American execptionalism, and I am disgusted with it now as I was under Mr. Bush.

        1. As I think I have mentioned – I was never a supporter of the war in Afghanistan and I continue to oppose it. My judgement on Iraq is somewhat less clear but I think the general stability we are seeing there is reason for a slim optimism.

          The problem with Libya is that there is no clear indication of whether or not we are supporting the opposition or simply trying to protect civillians. I know that the latter has been claimed but there’s a solid case to be made for the former.Additionally there is the pure hypocrisy of ignoring similar situations elsewhere, most noticeably in Bahrain which just happens to be an ally so they get a pass.

          1. Speaking as a supporter of the Libya war (and I like to think I have thought this through)…

            Obviously this is just as much about about getting rid of Gadhaffi as it is about protecting civilians (one could even argue that doing the former would be the best way of going about the latter), but we just can’t say that because resolution 1973 doesn’t allow that.

            The way I see this going, again because of how SC1973 has been put together, is that we’re headed for a stalemate on the battlefield: The opposition forces apparently have too low all-round combat readiness to advance further west, while the government forces will get bombed if they try to push east.

            A stalemate might not quite as bad as it sounds, because if neither force is able to advances on their own, that increases the likelihood of a real ceasefire and a negotiated political solution considerably. I think the most likely outcome at this point would be an agreement along the usual lines where Gadhaffi steps down and leaves Libya in return for immunity from prosecution and a retirement somewhere.

            1. There have been reports that the air strikes have not just been defensive but offensive including attacks on retreating loyalist forces. We’ve gone beyond defense of civillians towards regime change.

            2. As I said, that is quite obviously the ultimate policy, and as we know, war is just a continuation of politics by other means. No surprise there. That said, I don’t think that protecting civilians in the short term and working towards a regime change in the medium to long term are at all incompatible.

              1. They are incompatible with the Libya policy as articulated by the President this week.

              2. I don’t see that. He did say that the US is not going to “broaden the military mission to include regime change”. But he also said, and I think this was probably the most important part of the speech in terms of policy:

                “As the bulk of our military effort ratchets down, what we can do — and will do — is support the aspirations of the Libyan people. We have intervened to stop a massacre, and we will work with our allies and partners to maintain the safety of civilians. We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supplies of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Qaddafi leaves power. It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Qaddafi tries desperately to hang on to power. But it should be clear to those around Qaddafi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on Qaddafi’s side. With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny, and that is how it should be.”

                I read this to mean pretty much what I mentioned above – that the policy is to create a situation on the ground where Gadhaffi’s position becomes so untenable that his best, or perhaps only choice will be to step down. That way, you don’t get “regime change by military means” as much as “military means enabling a situation where regime change will happen” – a fine distinction, perhaps, but international politics is made up of such distinctions.

                By the way, in that regard, it’s pretty notable that the Libyan foreign minister decided to defect just yesterday. Probably a sign that things are heading that way.

                1. If we’re using our planes to bomb offensive targets then we are aiding his fall militarily. Then we have an obligation to the victor. We are simply leveling the playing field to let the will of the people shine.

          2. Also, more specifically about the differences between Iraq and Libya, I see at least two major ones.

            Firstly, unlike Iraq, Libya has been not just UN-approved, but was directly requested by, of all organizations, the Arab League. This hasn’t gotten as much attention as it ought to, but for the Arab League to come out and directly request military action against one of its members is actually nothing short of a revolution in international politics.

            The second difference is the immediate context of the attacks. Iraq was essentially a war of choice. There was no immediate pressing need to intervene – the Bush administration pretty much said “Yeah, we want to get rid of this guy”, and then they went and did that. But could it have waited, or even been avoided? Probably yes.

            By contrast, Libya happened in a very specific situation where Gadhaffi’s forces were about to attack Benghazi, a rebel-held city of some 700,000 people, and where he had made some very belligerent statements prior to the attacks. In other words, if the intervention had not happened then and there, it might have been too late to prevent a potential massacre from happening.

            And this in turn I think needs to be seen in the light of what happened in Srebrenica during the Bosnian Wars in 1995, when the international community (and particularly Europe) faced a somewhat similar situation, but failed to make the necessary commitment to protect the civilian population. The result of that failure is of course well-known, and it is still quite a bit of a collective trauma in European foreign policy now 15 years later. So I think much of the motivation for this intervention comes from a quite earnest desire to avoid a repetition of ’95. And fortunately, we seem to have succeeded in that, at least for the time being.

            1. The Arab league has their own planes.

            2. Oh please! The Arab League is a political forum, not a miliary alliance. Even if that were a realistic scenario, it would have taken months to establish the necessary command and control framework for such an operation.

              1. But the members DO have planes and they could have done this. France could have provided control services.

              2. That kind of capability doesn’t just appear out of thin air or can be built up overnight (which would literally have been necessary in the case of Benghazi). The reason why the US could carry out this operation is that they have trained and held exercises with the French, the British and the other involved countries for decades, so all the necessary structures and procedures were already in place from the first hour.

                Waging war is a bit more complicated than just pointing your planes in the right direction and telling them to drop some bombs somewhere, you know.

                1. So what you are saying is that in the current state of affairs the US has no choice but to function as the rapid-reaction force for any military/humanitarian interventions that the world needs?

                2. Obviously there will always be a choice. But the point is that both action and inaction are choices with consequences – and as the situation was around March 15-16, with loyalist forces advancing towards Benghazi and in the light of Gadhaffi’s rhetoric, I think there’s a good possibility that if the intervention had not happened, right now we’d be arguing about why no one had done anything to prevent maybe 20-30,000 deaths in Benghazi. Frankly, I’d much rather have this discussion than that other one.

                  1. But I think the question is valid – going forward, is any other nation equipped and likely to help out in similar situations?

                  2. Not at present. If the European Union were more integrated militarily, we probably could, but that’s not going to happen for, I’d guess, at least another 10-15 years.

                    Even then, we’d be nowhere near the overall capabilities of the US. I mean, just to take one data point, Britain is currently building two supercarriers, and France is thinking about maybe building one. The US has eleven of them. The fact is that you’re the world’s only superpower, and the only one we’re likely to have for quite a while. But that position does come with some hard choices to make.

                    1. It comes with hard choices but not necessarily international responsibilities. What I don’t like is the attitude from many that the US basically has no choice but to act when the international community calls.

                    2. Well, the positive thing about being a superpower is no one can actually force you to do something. So here will always be a choice.

        2. Philip, I don’t understand what you mean. I think I must define “American exceptionalism” differently than you do, because there’s no way to parse your last sentence with the meaning I ascribe to that phrase so that the sentence makes sense. So… what do you mean when you say “American exceptionalism”?

          AK, you’re right that the Arab League involvement is a huge deal – and if Wikipedia is to be trusted, two Arab League members (Qatar and UAE) are helping to enforce the no-fly zone, with 33% of Qatar’s combat jets and 8% of the UAE’s combat jets participating.

          Now… here’s a question I have: is Libya really an Arab country? I’d just assumed the majority ethnic group there was Berbers, not Arabs.

          1. I’m not sure about the Libyan demographics exactly, but the definition of “the Arab world” has probably always been somewhat fluid and based on other things than strictly ethnicity. As I recall, the League uses a definition based on language and cultural identity – a state that uses Arabic as an official language and has a population that “identifies with the Arabic cause” (or something like that) is eligible to join.

            So while there are lots of Berbers, Tuaregs and other ethnicities in Libya, it’s still definitely part of the “Arab world” as commonly understood.

          2. Steve,
            I was using the term pejoritively, mostly to poke a commentators (NOT MIKE) on the right side of the political aisle who think that America is like no other country; that we can learn nothing form history (even our own); that our circumstances make us unique and not subject to the judgments we levy against others. Sadly, there is no universally accepted font to highlight that in a blog comment.

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