international analysis and commentary

The Libya crisis in the American press

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Since the crisis in Libya began a few weeks ago, eyewitness accounts from the front lines, live shots of rebels waving guns and free Libya flags, and a stream of pundits debating pros and cons of alternative policies have been a common sight in the US media.

Such images have become even more prominent from the moment the international effort to impose a no-fly zone on Libya kicked off, although interspersed with, and often preceded by, news about the death of Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor and the nuclear emergency in Japan.

Coverage has been generally skewed toward combat zone reporting (particularly on TV), providing immediacy but lacking in depth. It has also prompted a flurry of speculations among commentators about the essence of the so-called “Obama doctrine” and it has led to questions about the strategy pursued by the White House, highlighting a degree of discomfort in the American press with how things have evolved.

Although not as far-reaching as the coverage which followed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when there were American boots on the ground and much more was at stake for the United States, media reporting on the conflict in Libya has been extensive.

“For the most part, I think the reporting has been quite good,” says Philip Seib, director of the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California. “The problem though, and this comes up every time that there is an armed conflict being covered, is that there tends to be more coverage of combat, the journalists call it “bang bang”, and not enough about the politics.”

Beside a few attempts, says Seib, little has been done to address larger questions such as the consequences in the region of an eventual ousting of Colonel Muammar Gheddafi, or the kind of government we could expect to take over in Libya following his departure.

“Libya is a country that has not gotten that much attention in recent years,” says Michael Massing of the Columbia Journalism Review. “As with many parts of the Middle East, the depth of knowledge is not as great in the American news media as I would like to see.”

The comparison that comes to mind is with the Doha-based network Al Jazeera, which has dozens of bureaus across the region and is more knowledgeable of local politics, history and languages than its American competitors. Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Al Jazeera while scolding US media: “Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news,” said Clinton. “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and arguments between talking heads.”

American broadcast media in particular have undoubtedly fallen victim to the obsession with pundits, as well as giving in to the temptation of reporting about themselves rather than the news. NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel was caught in the line of fire last week, when artillery rounds fired by Gheddafi forces struck the area where he was interviewing rebel fighters. The short clip of Engel running for cover absorbed much of his network’s coverage that day.

The feud between CNN’s Nic Robertson and Fox News’ Steve Harrigan also attracted undue attention. The Fox News team in Libya accused Robertson and his colleagues of buying into the propaganda machine of the Gheddafi regime and allowing themselves to be used as human shields. Robertson responded by taking on Harrigan. “I see him more times at breakfast than out on trips with government officials here,” he said on the air.

Aside from a few exceptions, says Seib, reporters have done a good job overall and shown a great deal of courage in covering the unfolding crisis. In-depth analysis and long-term thinking is what has been lacking, he adds.

Whatever analysis has been provided has focused largely on implications for US policy and what this current crisis reveals about President Obama’s foreign policy.

Obama tends to prefer pragmatism to ideology, which seems to leave commentators scratching their heads, trying to piece together scattered clues into a coherent “Obama doctrine.”

Under fire from both the left and the right, and from sections of the media, the President finally addressed the nation Monday night. Minutes after the end of the speech, Wolf Blitzer, of CNN, said: “I think what we just heard from the President of the United States is the clearest form of what we can call the Obama doctrine, when to deploy US military forces around the world.”

To Michael Massing, of the Columbia Journalism Review, it felt almost like Blitzer had spent two years looking for hints about the Obama doctrine and was ready to draw conclusions at the first chance. “This [intervention] seems to me very much as an improvised policy in response to something taking place on the ground,” says Massing. “Trying to suddenly see it as the Obama doctrine strikes me as very superficial.”

Tuesday morning, particularly in print and online, the tone of commentators was more nuanced, reconciling with the fact that the President himself had steered clear of outlining an overarching philosophy for US foreign interventions. “This isn’t the Obama Doctrine. It’s Obama’s Libya Doctrine,” wrote John Dickerson in Slate. “The doctrine is there is no doctrine,” echoed Ben Smith in Politico. “No sign of ‘Obama doctrine’ in speech on Libya,” titled McClatchy. The recognition tasted a bit like disappointment.

There is no doubt that the White House has been under intense scrutiny by the press, which has openly questioned the US strategy in Libya, unlike what happened at the time of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

For the most part, the media has raised legitimate questions on the specifics of the American involvement in Libya; the White House has not always been forthcoming in its responses.

Some commentators have taken issue with the eventual extent and cost of the military intervention. “Despite Obama’s declaration that he would not send ground troops into Libya, what is he going to do if the air assault doesn’t work? What if Gheddafi hangs tough?” wrote Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy Magazine on March 21st, demanding to know more about the end game envisioned by the White House.

Others have strongly criticized the President for not seeking the authorization of Congress to deploy the military, such as for example the editorial board of the The New York Times, who, on March 28th, wrote: “Presidents should not commit the military to battle without consulting Congress and explaining their reasons to the American people.”

There are also those who remain unconvinced of the supposedly humanitarian considerations that led to the administration’s decision to go after Libya and, for example, not Yemen. On The Washington Post of March 21st, Eugene Robinson wrote: “Why is Libya so different? Basically, because the dictators of Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are friendly, cooperative and useful.”

Pundits have called the President both dithering and reckless. For Richard Cohen, of The Washington Post, “the Obama administration has applied incoherence to confusion.” For Michael Waltzer, who wrote an op-ed in The New Republic on March 20th, “there are so many things wrong with the Libyan intervention that it is hard to know where to begin.”

The media-at-large has also appeared, at some level, uncomfortable with the United States’ novel embrace of multilateralism, with France’s aggressive pursuit of leadership and with the fact that the White House intentionally choose to take a back seat.

Writing in Slate on March 28th, William Saletan described the Libya coalition as “worse than outsourcing”. “Outsourcing is when you hire somebody abroad to do what you want. In Libya, we’re doing the opposite. We’re hiring ourselves out to do what somebody abroad wants,” he wrote.

The editorial board of The New York Times, among others, was very critical of France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy’s alleged headline-grabbing attitude. “French efforts to appear the leader and prime coordinator of that intervention have needlessly strained relations with other participating countries,” they wrote on March 23rd.

Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg, of the National Review, attacked Obama for risking the Libyan rebels’ advance in order to wait for the UN Mandate. “So Obama slowed things down to set up the play he wanted rather than the play the moment demanded. As a result, Gheddafi regained his balance,” he wrote on March 23rd.

It looks as if, after years of aggressive unilateralism pursued by the previous administration, no matter how critical they might have been with George W. Bush “the decider”, sections of the US media appear to be unprepared for the subtleties inherent in Obama’s decision to commit to a true multilateral coalition.