Back in 2009 I made a remark to the effect that John McCain’s response to the August 2008 war in Georgia was partly responsible for convincing voters that he was unfit to be President. One of the commenters correctly pointed out that McCain’s response to the war in Georgia basically made no difference to his electoral chances. I would still say that his response was a good indicator of the crazy way he would respond to international events, but on reflection I have to agree that as far as the 2008 election was concerned the impact of the August war was basically nil. The war in Georgia involved a client state that received American aid, and one whose troops were among those deployed in Iraq, and McCain immediately staked out a fanatically pro-Georgian position. Given all these things, it’s all the more interesting that it had no meaningful impact on the election. This came back to me when I saw Jennifer Rubin discussing the impact of Libya on the 2012 election:
Libya may therefore become a critical issue in one of two circumstances. First, if — as some conservatives fear — it devolves into a bloody, prolonged civil war and casualties mount, this foreign policy debacle could well become a stunning example of President Obama’s foreign policy ineptitude and of the perils of excessive reliance on multilateralism. We have yet to get a credible casualty count or see vivid depictions of the violence, but when those inevitably surface, the outrage over American passivity may well heighten.
Even if the Libya situation does not devolve into genocidal war, Libya may simply become one more item in the growing list of foreign policy failures. When viewed in conjunction with Obama’s fixation on Israel’s settlements, attempts at Iran engagement, his backing of Hugo Chavez’s crony in Honduras and his deferential stance toward a wide array of autocrats (from Bashar al-Assad to Vladimir Putin), voters may come to see that Obama’s foreign policy is hastening the decline of American influence.
To take the worst-case scenario first, a “genocidal” war in Libya would be a truly awful outcome, but for it to have political effects at home the American public would have to believe that the Obama administration should have intervened early on. As far as anyone can tell, most Americans want no such thing. If anything, most Americans want the opposite: to stay out of a conflict that has nothing to do with the U.S. Unless the U.S. inserts itself into the war, Libya is not going to become much of an issue in the 2012 election, much less a “critical” issue. The reason? Unfortunately, Americans barely pay attention to the major wars the U.S. is already fighting, and to the extent that the public is frustrated with those wars the mainstream GOP offers them no alternative to current policy. Non-intervention in Libya isn’t going to win Obama many votes, but it isn’t going to lose him very many, either. The people who believe the things listed above count as Obama’s “failures” are already dead-set against his re-election, and most voters either don’t care about these issues or the issues aren’t top priorities for them.
If Obama keeps the U.S. out of the fighting, that matches up with what most Americans say that they want, and outside of their cocoon Republican hawks are going to have a hard time using non-intervention in Libya to attack Obama. For them to make that attack, Republican candidates would need to be able to explain why starting yet another foreign war is a good use of American resources and a necessary risk to American military personnel. There is not actually an argument for this. According to the hawks, intervention is simply something that the U.S. “must” do.
Even if Obama made the horrible mistake of intervening, which we can still hope that he won’t do, Libya would not be an issue that Republicans could exploit very effectively. If Obama started an unnecessary American war in Libya, his main Republican challengers have boxed themselves into a corner by insisting that this is exactly what Obama must do. There is significant political pressure to make this horrible mistake, but it is not coming from the American electorate.