The Liberal Way of War

The current generation of American liberals loves a good war. In recent years they’ve fought, with varying degrees of success, the War on Poverty, the War on Hunger, and the War on Carbon. So it seemed ironic that when the liberals of the Obama administration launched a campaign in Libya that seemed truly worthy of being called a war, they were reluctant to use the word. But now that disinclination is starting to make sense -- because a war is something you generally set out to win.

You can’t blame liberals for appropriating the word "war" to infuse left-wing social and environmental policies with a sense of moral urgency in order to sell them to voters. Try rallying support for a time-limited kinetic operation against poverty. The trouble is that when you engage in the deadly serious business of dropping bombs on an Arab country and taking sides in a civil war -- actions replete with dangers and unintended consequences -- you need a stronger basis for acting than the insistence that something must be done.

The Obama administration's decision to intervene in Libya, driven by the liberal interventionist clique headed by Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice, may be based on good intentions. But it's underpinned by no consistent principles or coherent foreign policy (why not Syria? Bahrain?), serves no obvious national interest, and seems to have been taken with little thought as to what constitutes success, or what happens a week, a month, a year down the road.

It’s a "war" waged in response to TV news reports from journalists who arrived on the scene ten minutes earlier, and who prefer a simple good-guys-against-bad-guys narrative to a serious analysis of the roots of a conflict, or of the consequences of intervention (this is actually a recognised phenomenon – it's called the "CNN effect"). It isn’t even a case of What Would Carter Do? It’s WWBD?: What Would Bono Do? It's Live Aid with bombs. (It's only fair to note that some prominent conservatives are also afflicted with this mindset.)

This rather simplistic approach to foreign policy is compounded by the Obama administration's eagerness to distinguish itself from the perceived unilateralism of George W Bush. And so, in order to create the impression of the "international community" acting in concert, the U.S.  has had to ally itself with countries and organizations whose motives are rather less noble, but who lacked the firepower to act on their own.

Soeren Kern has written about how French President Nicolas Sarkozy is showboating on the world stage in a bid to fend off attacks from political rivals to his right and divert attention from economic problems. British Prime Minister David Cameron is similarly beset by economic woes, and the Libyan adventure is serving as a welcome distraction from domestic politics; both countries, and other coalition members, have energy interests in the country. And the thugs and crooks that make up the Arab League were happy to play along, calculating that by shining the spotlight on Gaddafi they could both rid themselves of a regional nuisance and divert attention from the plight of their own peoples; although the moment the bombs started falling they defaulted to "us against the West" mode.

So the intervention in Libya is the half-blood child of multilateralism, an intervention driven in part by genuine humanitarian concerns and in part by naked self-interest. But make no mistake: there could have been no intervention without the Tomahawk missiles and B-2 bombers of the American don’t-call-it-war machine.

With so many disparate interests in play, disagreement over strategy and aims, and so little moral authority or political resolve on the part of those conducting the campaign, it’s not surprising that the situation in Libya is settling into stalemate. More than six weeks after Obama declared that Gaddafi had to go he’s still in place, and still killing civilians. And absent both principles and a plan, and given liberals' general disdain for the projection of American power overseas, it's also not surprising that the Obama administration's commitment is faltering. France and Britain, incapable of finishing the job the U.S.  helped them start, have demanded that both the U.S. and other NATO countries do more – the participation of most coalition members has so far been limited to having their national flag stuck on a map of the Mediterranean during TV news bulletins. Sarkozy and Cameron asked Obama for more U.S. airstrikes, but all they've gotten so far is his signature on a joint letter filled with multilateralist boilerplate and the promise of a couple of Predator drones.

Hillary Clinton’s tough line on Libya is said in part to be influenced by her regret over husband Bill’s failure to intervene in the 1994 Rwandan genocide; Power and Rice have also invoked the spectre of Rwanda. Libya isn’t, and was never going to be, another Rwanda; but if the Obama administration wants a more suitable Rwanda analogy, as well as a timely reminder of the contradictions, messy compromises, and long-term problems inherent when the "international community" embroils itself in intractable tribal and ethnic disputes in foreign lands, they only have to look from the north of Africa to the east, to Ivory Coast.