international analysis and commentary

Obama and Libya: missing the essentials


As I am often the prisoner of some airport lounge, I voraciously tend to devour any book I can lay my hands on. Recently I found a real treasure, a re-release of Casino Royale, the Ian Fleming novel which introduced the world to the unforgettable James Bond. He is not known for philosophical disquisitions. But there was one great intellectual gem amidst the piffle. At one point in the story, Bond, despondent at being tortured, had an existential moment wherein he seemed to find no difference between the West and the USSR, as both sides used heinous means to advance their abstractly noble aims. Bond’s chum, an older French agent who has seen it all, patiently listens to this moral equivalence nonsense for a while, puffs on his pipe and then says something truly profound, “James, surround yourself with human beings. They are easier to fight for than principles.”

And indeed this has always seemed to me to be the basic flaw in the missionary Wilsonianism that today rides ascendant in the Obama administration. In valuing above all abstractions like “the international community”, “our duty to mankind”, and seeing America as “the moral exemplar of the world”, America’s humanitarian imperialists throw the real concerns of real human beings – flesh and blood Americans, rather than pretty sounding phrases – under the bus.

In the case of the Libyan adventure, in his zeal to promote a globally unenforceable Responsibility to Protect (or in the Orwellian parlance of nongovernmental organizations R2P), wherein it is the obligation of the global community (read the United States) to unseat all tyrants doing horrible things to their people, Obama has harmed real Americans in three ways: he has engaged us in a war that is not important, not constitutional and not affordable. While such earth-bound trivialities may seem prosaic to lofty believers in humanitarian intervention, they have the real charm of being about issues that directly impact upon the people the President has sworn an oath to: the citizens of the United States, not the citizens of the world.

For despite his fine speechwriters’ best efforts, Benghazi is not Charlotte. This facile comparison, equating the plight of the rebel residents of that eastern Libyan town with a bustling American city, tells us much about the thinking of the Wilsonians around the President; for them there is simply no difference between the needs and interests of Americans and that of foreign city few if any Washington decision-makers have ever set foot in. And that is the danger of following the siren call of abstractions: they lead you to miss the essential, which must be above all in the case of the President, advancing the concrete interests of the people of the United States – or if you will the people of Charlotte – rather than the interests of the international community. That is the moral failing at the heart of this overly moralistic creed.  

Not important
Missing the essentials is not an esoteric failing; in this case the administration seems to have forgotten the Middle East is on fire, and practically every other looming crisis is far and away more important for American strategic interests than whatever happens in Libya. This incontestable truth ought to lead to a policy of keeping our powder dry for the bigger challenges surely to come. This would seem obvious to anyone who believes in the concept of national interests; the tragedy is that those around the President who successfully pushed for the policy of intervention – UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Senior NSC Director Samantha Power and Secretary Hillary Clinton – do not.

Let’s run the list. Egypt, the intellectual, demographic and military center of the Arab world, has just enacted through a referendum electoral reforms calling for quick elections; in such a case the Muslim Brotherhood (who seem to have a cut a deal with the ruling army junta) is bound to do well as the only well-established political party. Long-standing American ally President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen is on his last leg; who runs (or tries to run) that snake pit after him is anyone’s guess, but they could well prove sympathetic to al-Qaeda. Bahrain, who with Saudi help cracked down on majority Shia protestors, simmers along, fully capable of exploding again at any moment. Syria’s President Assad must decide within days (perhaps hours) if he will crack down on growing protests in his own country or enact meaningful reform. Saudi Arabia itself, the only nation in the world presently capable of pumping significantly more oil at a time when ravaged Japan and others will surely need it, sits uneasily in the middle of this maelstrom. It is firmly siding with the forces of reaction, but is ripe itself for further destabilization in the minority Shia dominated east of the country, where most of its oil lies. By a country mile, all these looming crises are infinitely more important than ridding the world of Gheddafi.

One of the most admirable qualities Secretary of Defense Robert Gates possesses is his preternatural aversion to untruths. When pressed as to the fact that Libya is not a primary American interest, he somewhat embarrassedly agreed. Undaunted, the Obama people seem to now be trying to formulate a new international doctrine wherein they map out when America should still get militarily involved in areas where there are no significant interests at all.

As Representative Anthony Weiner put it, “What’s the purpose of being a powerful country if we are not using it to defend people?” My answer is simple: The American military is not a toy to be used to make you feel better. It is there primarily to defend the people of the US (of Charlotte) and not the people of the world. To ignore this reality, to fritter away our blood and treasure on tertiary concerns, is to weaken our country, to make it less powerful, and that is morally incorrect. It really depends on which people one owes primary allegiance to, an undifferentiated world or the real flesh and blood human beings of the United States.

Not constitutional
In his fine book, The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama rightly lambastes recent presidents for their failure to obtain Congressional approval for their military adventures. Having entered the White House himself, this former constitutional law professor has now found the Constitution to be a bit of a bother; and, after all, what are legal niceties compared with dealing with the sufferings in Libya?

They are everything; for that is the true treasure at the heart of American exceptionalism: Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton and Madison founded a government of laws – not men. In such a system, this unique experiment meant that circumstances and personalities take a back seat to the deliberative functioning of the process. Circumstances are always pressing, and personalities are always compelling; the Founders bet that these stresses on a deliberative system could be managed, and that this ponderous process of checks and balances was the key to the preservation of the Republic.

But what about the people of Benghazi, Obama’s supporters implore? Surely the very real prospect of a massacre there means that the whole conferring with Congress thing, a quaint anachronism of a long-ago past, must be brushed aside for the greater good? But for Jeffersonians such as myself, the greater good is that process, one which has seen our country through many storms of more consequence than this.

Further, the pressing time factor Obama’s adherents cite as a reason to trample on the Constitution does not wash; there was plenty of time to confer with the dictators of the Arab League and meet with all of our NATO allies. In fact, Secretary Clinton (who as a lawyer ought to know better) blandly seems to say that an international consensus makes going to Congress somehow superfluous, once again confusing which people ought to be focused on, and consulted with. At a practical level, this could well come back to bite the administration, as the quite possible de facto partition of Libya into a rebel zone and a Gheddafi-controlled area (after the routing of the rebels in Bin Jawwad this seems ever the likely outcome) will push the White House to an ever-deeper involvement in this quagmire. Without a shred of Congressional support, such a disdain for Congress could really box the Obama White House into a corner.

Not affordable
Worst of all, the Obamaites seem blithely oblivious to the one problem they should be spending the lion’s share of their time trying to fix: the awful financial position of the United States. The White House has been eloquently silent on how this most recent foreign adventure will be paid for: What’s the little matter of domestic financial responsibility, when there is global suffering to be alleviated?

But America is hurting, far more than its coddled elite in Washington can imagine. Just three numbers give one the idea of how bad things are. As of today, fully one-third of working age Americans have no retirement money put aside at all; nothing. One-quarter of American home mortgages are underwater, with residents owing more on their houses than they are worth. One-fifth of all American wealth (lodged in their inflated housing prices) was lost in the Great Recession. This is not a little local difficulty America is going through; it is at best the sure sign of relative decline. Fighting further wars of choice will only exacerbate the economic situation, calling into question whether America will endure as the greatest power in the world.

But what are all these facts compared with the moral imperative of bolstering the international community? They should be everything; if America’s preeminent position is to be secured for future generations. The victorious Wilsonians will doubtless reap the whirlwind as their confused moralism will simply prove unaffordable in the future. The unanswered and overwhelming question is whether America can come to develop an activist but realistic foreign policy in a multipolar world, thus preserving its position, by acknowledging genuine limits as to what it ought to do. I’d implore everyone in Washington, as Bond’s French friend did so well, to surround themselves with human beings, with the people of Charlotte; they are easier to fight for, and deserve your undivided attention.