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.
Officially, only the French are committed to regime change. So suppose Qaddafi survives. If you were in his shoes, mightn’t you be a little peeved? Enough to pull off a new Lockerbie? A more successful assassination attempt on the Saudi king? A little bit of Euro-bombing?
Alternatively, suppose Qaddafi winds up hanging from a lamppost in his favorite party dress. If you’re a Third World dictator, what lessons would you draw? Qaddafi was the thug who came in from the cold, the one who (in the wake of Saddam’s fall) renounced his nuclear program and was supposedly rehabilitated in the chancelleries of the West. He was “a strong partner in the war on terrorism,” according to U.S. diplomats. And what did Washington do? They overthrew him anyway.
The blood-soaked butcher next door in Sudan is the first head of state to be charged by the International Criminal Court with genocide, but nobody’s planning on toppling him. Iran’s going nuclear with impunity, but Obama sends fraternal greetings to the “Supreme Leader” of the “Islamic Republic.” North Korea is more or less openly trading as the one-stop bargain-basement for all your nuke needs, and we’re standing idly by. But the one cooperative dictator’s getting million-dollar-a-pop cruise missiles lobbed in his tent all night long. If you were the average Third World loon, which role model makes most sense? Colonel Cooperative in Tripoli? Or Ayatollah Death-to-the-Great-Satan in Tehran? America is teaching the lesson that the best way to avoid the attentions of whimsical “liberal interventionists” is to get yourself an easily affordable nuclear program from Pyongyang or anywhere else as soon as possible.
The United States is responsible for 43 percent of the planet’s military spending. So how come it doesn’t feel like that? It’s not merely that “our military is being volunteered by others,” but that Washington has been happy to volunteer it as the de facto expeditionary force for the “international community.” Sometimes U.S. troops sail under U.N. colors, sometimes NATO’s, and now in Libya even the Arab League’s. Either way, it makes little difference: America provides most of the money, men, and materiel. All that changes is the transnational figleaf.
But lost along the way is hard-headed, strategic calculation of the national interest. “They won’t come back till it’s over/Over there!” sang George M. Cohan as the doughboys marched off in 1917. It was all over 20 minutes later and then they came back. Now it’s never over over there — not in Korea, not in Kuwait, not in Kosovo, not in Kandahar. Next stop Kufra? America has swapped The Art of War for the Hotel California: We psychologically check out, but we never leave.