It is tempting and certainly very easy to point out that Obama’s war (or Obama’s “kinetic military action,” or “time-limited, scope-limited military action,” or whatever the latest ever more preposterous evasion is) is at odds with everything candidate Obama said about U.S. military action before his election. And certainly every attempt the president makes to explain his Libyan adventure is either cringe-makingly stupid (“I’m accustomed to this contradiction of being both a commander-in-chief but also somebody who aspires to peace”) or alarmingly revealing of a very peculiar worldview:
“That’s why building this international coalition has been so important,” he said the other day. “It is our military that is being volunteered by others to carry out missions that are important not only to us, but are important internationally.”
That’s great news. Who doesn’t enjoy volunteering other people? The Arab League, for reasons best known to itself, decided that Colonel Qaddafi had outlived his sell-by date. Granted that the region’s squalid polities haven’t had a decent military commander since King Hussein fired Gen. Sir John Glubb half a century back, how difficult could it be even for Arab armies to knock off a psychotic transvestite guarded by Austin Powers fembots? But no: Instead, the Arab League decided to volunteer the U.S. military.
Likewise, the French and the British. Libya’s special forces are trained by Britain’s SAS. Four years ago, President Sarkozy hosted a state visit for Colonel Qaddafi, his personal security detail of 30 virgins, his favorite camel, and a 400-strong entourage that helped pitch his tent in the heart of Paris. Given that London and Paris have the third – and fourth-biggest military budgets on the planet and that between them they know everything about Qaddafi’s elite troops, sleeping arrangements, guard-babes, and dromedaries, why couldn’t they take him out? But no: They too decided to volunteer the U.S. military.
But, as I said, it’s easy to mock the smartest, most articulate man ever to occupy the Oval Office. Instead, in a non-partisan spirit, let us consider why it is that the United States no longer wins wars. Okay, it doesn’t exactly lose (most of) them, but nor does it have much to show for a now 60-year-old pattern of inconclusive outcomes. American forces have been fighting and dying in Afghanistan for a decade: Doesn’t that seem like a long time for a non-colonial power to be spending hacking its way through the worthless terrain of a Third World dump? If the object is to kill terrorists, might there not be some slicker way of doing it? And, if the object is something else entirely, mightn’t it be nice to know what it is?
I use the word “non-colonial” intentionally. I am by temperament and upbringing an old-school imperialist: There are arguments to be made for being on the other side of the world for decades on end if you’re claiming it as sovereign territory and rebuilding it in your image, as the British did in India, Belize, Mauritius, the Solomon Islands, you name it. Likewise, there are arguments to be made for saying sorry, we’re a constitutional republic, we don’t do empire. But there’s not a lot to be said for forswearing imperialism and even modest cultural assertiveness, and still spending ten years getting shot up in Afghanistan helping to create, bankroll, and protect a so-called justice system that puts a man on death row for converting to Christianity.
Libya, in that sense, is a classic post-nationalist, post-modern military intervention: As in Kosovo, we’re do-gooders in a land with no good guys. But, unlike Kosovo, not only is there no strategic national interest in what we’re doing, the intended result is likely to be explicitly at odds with U.S. interests. A quarter-century back, Qaddafi was blowing American airliners out of the sky and murdering British policewomen: That was the time to drop a bomb on him. But we didn’t. Everyone from the government of Scotland (releasing the “terminally ill” Lockerbie bomber, now miraculously restored to health) to Mariah Carey and Beyoncé (with their million-dollar-a-gig Qaddafi party nights) did deals with the Colonel.
Now suddenly he’s got to go — in favor of “freedom-loving” “democrats” from Benghazi. That would be in eastern Libya — which, according to West Point’s Counter Terrorism Center, has sent per capita the highest number of foreign jihadists to Iraq. Perhaps now that so many Libyan jihadists are in Iraq, the Libyans left in Libya are all Swedes in waiting. But perhaps not. If we lack, as we do in Afghanistan, the cultural confidence to wean those we liberate from their less attractive pathologies, we might at least think twice before actively facilitating them.