As his speech tonight confirms, President Obama intervened in Libya to prevent a massacre in Benghazi. That is the long and short of it. Yes, he also hoped that his action would blunt Qaddafi’s counter-revolutionary stroke, thereby putting us “on the right side” of the emerging revolt in the Middle East (Hillary’s chief concern). Yet that was a secondary motive. Fundamentally, Obama was unwilling to go down in history as the man who allowed a massacre in Benghazi. He also wanted to set a precedent for future multilateral humanitarian interventions under United Nations auspices. Everything else follows from this core motive, which is represented within his administration by Samantha Power and Susan Rice, above all.
Obama is not a neoconservative democratizer. When he talks about our values of human rights and democracy, he has in mind the progressive vision of a UN-dictated rights regime that constrains and encroaches upon national sovereignty, including our own. This is the portion of his policy goals in Libya (drawn from advisors like Power) that he does not explicitly spell out. It depends on doctrines like “responsibility to protect,” liable to future expansion and abuse by international bodies. Instead of going into all this, Obama merely highlights the “historic” UN resolution that enshrines the new doctrine, and speaks of his worry that a failure to act would have rendered the UN’s “writ” meaningless.
There are immense problems with all of this, of course, both from the standpoint of American interests more conventionally defined, and from the standpoint of humanitarianism. In a tribal civil war, those we have saved are as likely to massacre Qaddafi’s supporters, should they take power with our help, as Qaddafi was to kill them. Getting out from our moral and military responsibility for that will be a neat trick.
As far as our “conventional” national interests go, whether you’re an eager democratizer or a realist, nothing Obama is doing makes much sense. The point is, Obama was unwilling to let Benghazi fall under Qaddafi’s power, and he’s trying to avoid excessive American involvement beyond that simple act. He would love for all the uncomfortable consequences of his humanitarian gesture to go away. But of course they won’t. Saving Benghazi is not a simple act. It has massive ramifications and complications for humanitarianism, for democracy promotion or the lack thereof, and for America’s economic and military interests traditionally defined. On all this, Obama is simply juggling the complicated results of his humanitarian gesture as best he can.
Let’s go back to that fateful Tuesday meeting. Benghazi was about to fall. Hillary had just been rebuffed in her efforts to meet with the young demonstrators who brought down Mubarak. She had also been told by other Egyptians that they wanted Qaddafi stopped, because his success against his foes would break their movement’s momentum in the region. Obama saw in all this a chance in that to square the circle of our values and our interests, the conflict between which had been causing him no end of difficulty and embarrassment for weeks.
By stopping the massacre, he saved his good name and helped Hillary in her efforts to gain favor with the revolutionaries in Egypt and beyond. (The real reason Hillary was rebuffed, I maintain, was the bitter anti-Americanism of the Tahrir Square demonstrators who shunned her. They cannot be appeased, although Hillary falsely believed they could be.) Obama’s national security advisors looked at our conventional interests and saw the mess of constraints and contradictions intervention would bring. Obama famously overruled “the men,” going instead with his troika of female advisors, and it’s all played out to form since.
Obama has saved his good name on Benghazi for the history books. The young Egyptians still don’t like us, and they aren’t in charge anymore anyway. An alliance of the military and the Muslim Brotherhood is now running the show in Egypt instead. As for our more conventional interests and military position, Libya is a contradictory mess, as Obama’s own national security advisors foresaw. It was all predictable and predicted (except for Hillary’s naive take on Egypt). Obama made his choice and we are living with the consequences now.