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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Doubting Obama

I have been wrestling in my heart, mind and soul over the decision to intervene militarily in Libya. Of all the topics I write about related to politics and Obama, those touching on foreign policy are the ones I have the most knowledge and conviction about. I have always read and studied American foreign policy/history, and I had the privilege to do a master’s program at Boston University under the guidance of Andrew Bacevich. I started writing this particular post a number of times over the last few days, but have never been able to finish it. What I have decided to write is what I am coming to understand as Obama’s reasoning behind this decision, and why I think this decision is destined to fail.

From what I have read and heard, the clearest explanation is from Glenn Thrush of Politico in a column entitled “In Search of the ‘Obama Doctrine’”. I highly recommend a complete reading of it. He concludes:

In Libya, Obama’s decision to embrace a military solution was motivated less by hard-and-fast philosophical principles than by answering “yes” to four threshold questions:
First, could the U.S. stop a potential massacre without straining overstretched American military assets?
Second, was Qadhafi vulnerable enough to be seriously impacted by military action?
Third, could the U.S. get out fast?
Lastly, and most important of all, Obama asked if other countries could take the lead, at least publicly – a condition met late last week, only after the fractious Arab League, and then the U.N. Security Council, signed off on a no-fly zone.
In the course of his article, Thrush quotes directly from Obama’s interaction with reporters during his trip to South America:

“We have a huge national interest in making sure that those are successful because if Egypt can make a transition from an autocratic regime to a democracy, if Tunisia can make those same changes, they become models for a peaceful transition that at some point may be adopted by other countries in the region. If on the other hand, they spill into chaos…that could have spillover effects in the entire region. So not only do we have a humanitarian interest, but we also have a very practical interest in making sure that the changes that are sweeping through that region are occurring in a peaceful, nonviolent fashion.”

Now let me just say that I have always appreciated the professorial style of Obama. Maybe it is because my dad is a professor and I have myself been a teacher that I feel comforted by the way in which Obama’s law professor background leads him to think coolly and logically and to communicate steadily and carefully. But I fear that Obama is displaying the two fatal weaknesses of the intellectual engaging in power politics—cluelessness about the “fog of war” and blindness to the realities of our own use of violence. War is not like an argument on a whiteboard at the University of Chicago where you can erase a mistake and start over. The “fog of war” will immediately engulf all who enter it—just as it did yesterday when one of our planes crashed and the pilots were forced to eject over Libya in the middle of the night. The New York Times tells what happened next:
A Marine Corps officer said that the grounded pilot, who was in contact with rescue crews in the air, asked for bombs to be dropped as a precaution before the crews landed to pick him up. “My understanding is he asked for the ordnance to be delivered between where he was located and where he saw people coming toward him,” the officer said, adding that the pilot evidently made the request “to keep what he thought was a force closing in on him from closing in on him.”  In response, two Harrier attack jets that were part of the rescue team dropped two 500-pound bombs before a Marine Osprey helicopter landed to pick up the pilot, at about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday local time. The Marine officer said he did not know if the people approaching the pilot were friendly or hostile or what damage the bombs had caused.
This is war, President Obama. The chaos you fear engulfing the region may well increase as a result of the fog of war. The president seems utterly sincere in his assertion that we are now using tomahawk missiles by the hundreds to insure that “the changes that are sweeping through that region are occurring in a peaceful, nonviolent fashion.” He is wanting to keep the narrative of nonviolent change in the Arab world that has inspired millions around the world, myself included, but seems unable to see that our military intervention is already shifting the narrative. We are becoming the story. Our military is now bombing away to insure that “peaceful, nonviolent” change can happen. You declare yourself a fan of Niebuhr, the great prophet of irony in American history, Mr. President, so how can you not see the bitter irony in “bombing for nonviolent change”? I join Michael Kinsley in asking:
Was there nothing we could have done between sitting on our hands and launching something close to all-out war? Sure there is. It’s what we did for eastern Europe that helped bring victory in the Cold War: verbal support and financial support for dissidents and democrats. Make clear which side we’re on—but without overpromising, as in Hungary, 1957. It sounds like the opposite of “speak softly and carry a big stick,” and in a way, it is. But it worked to defeat Communism, and our track record with bigger ambitions in smaller situations has not been impressive.

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