While Sarah Palin criticizes President Obama of “dithering,” maybe that is exactly what we should be better at when it comes to foreign interventions like the recent one in Libya.  Here are some observations/questions I recently offered in a US foreign policy group I belong to, to, in part, stimulate discussion about US involvement in Libya.

  1. Analogies are dangerous. Rwanda was not Bosnia or Kosovo, and neither are any of them Libya.  The events associated with each are born from different places, times, people, governments, cultures, economies, and laws.  Still, our memories of them are powerful, and in the last several days the interpretation of each is and has been projected on Libya.  As historians we have to interpret the record associated with each while we place a huge warning label on our analyses that reads This Will Never Recur Exactly As It Has Here. (A sort of historian’s caveat emptor.)  In critical ways, each event is different.  Richard E. Neustadt’s and Ernest R. May’s Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers warns us of the danger of analogies.  Their study shows many cases of the misapplication of history, operationalized in policymaking through analogies, that cause us to ask, years later, why in the hell did they do that?  In most cases speed is a factor, and the simple enormity of what decision makers have to deal with, all the complexities and scale.  Analogies simplify and justify; they are the fuel of dispatch.  However, if we do in Libya what we should have done in the Balkans or Rwanda, will we do what is correct for Libya?  If we begin with the premise they are different, then how is doing what we believe we should have done in Bosnia or Rwanda even logical?
  2. We must be careful what we wish for.  Or, asked otherwise by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s representative for foreign affairs and security, “And then what?” Qaddafi (Q) didn’t become a mass murderer overnight, in fact, where is the evidence of slaughter?  Obama hung his case on Q’s psychobabble rhetoric, where Q claimed he would show “no mercy,” to justify intervening to stop Q short of Benghazi.  I can only conclude there was no evidence of slaughter by Q’s troops on the way from Tripoli to Benghazi, otherwise Obama surely would have hung his argument on something more than Q’s “no mercy” pledge.  (I reflect on much of Reagan’s rhetoric in the 1980s and find Q’s nearly childish.)  Q clearly had the rebels on the run, but genocide?  Q has a long history of violence, like other despots (we ignore), but I am unaware of any history of genocide.  Yet, we have committed tremendous resources to a nebulous task of “protecting Libyans” who will now likely face a long ground war with a desperate despot.  Many would have likely died, and now many likely will.  Where is the victory in that?  Moreover, when a conclusion is declared—however nebulous—then what?  Who will rule?  Whom will they rule and how?  Perhaps we should watch Egypt (an arguably much more stable and developed state) to see if freedom and human rights prevail over what looks like a government that will likely be controlled by the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Time will tell, but maybe we should let it do exactly that.
  3. In the meantime, American identity is slowly changing, but politics are still politics.  The debate in the US on this issue, when you cull out the relevant pronouns, is really about the role of the US in the world—about American identity.  Involvement by the US in world affairs swings to and fro—from isolationism to overt exceptionalism.  Absent the pronouns, when you compare today’s debate to the days of Woodrow Wilson’s battle with Congress after World War I, there is an eerie echo.  We may be seeing Obama facing the same thing today.  Perplexingly, Obama seems a better fit for an advocate of a more restrained America, yet the facts (Afghanistan and now Libya) belie my perception of his intellectual disposition.  Then again, maybe it is just the primacy of politics.  After all, 2012 looms.  Both humor and pain can be found in the push and pull between the White House and the Congress (under the veil of legal issues like the War Powers Act).  Each is trying to create a position where, in the end, they can claim they were right.  So, ambiguity wins again!