The administration looks to me like it is being driven by the CNN effect. Libya is in the headlines, dramatic events are afoot, so the administration believes it must do something, it must act, probably to demonstrate resolve, or exercise leadership. It isn’t leadership to let the media drive your foreign policy. If the exact same thing were happening right now in Equatorial Guinea, no one would care and we would not be contemplating a no-fly zone.
The administration is blundering into an unnecessary crisis, setting unrealistic expectations about our ability to drive events in Libya, and exposing itself to the dangers of unplanned escalation and mission creep. If we’re to have a grand strategy centered on building the liberal democratic peace — which is not a terrible idea — it should start from more considered reflection, not lurching overreaction to a crisis over which we have little control. Secretary Gates, ever the pragmatist, appeared to be walking back the administration’s aggressiveness on Wednesday morning. He is probably aware that using foreign policy to bolster one’s public standing has a venerable pedigree, but that does not make it wise.
I agree with Miller on several points, but he seems to be attaching too much importance to these minimal moves. As the report he cites states, and as Miller acknowledges in his post, there does not seem to be any intention of actual military intervention:
But officials in Washington and elsewhere said that direct military action remained unlikely, and that the moves were designed as much as anything as a warning to Colonel Qaddafi and a show of support to the protesters seeking to overthrow his government.
Miller makes a fair point that the warning won’t carry any weight if government officials tell the media that there is no intention of using force. It would be better to do nothing than to engage in empty gestures, but there isn’t much political support in Washington for doing absolutely nothing. Almost all of the arguments have been on the side of more direct U.S. action, and the administration has so far resisted giving in to the clamoring for war.
Miller clearly regards the use of force in Libya as a terrible blunder, so wouldn’t it be more unsettling and more disturbing if the administration were seriously considering attacking Libya? It would be much better if the U.S. were not trying to influence events inside Libya at all, but if some ultimately meaningless gestures help keep the U.S. out of this conflict I’ll settle for that. One could object that there is no need for Washington to go through the motions of a review of options when the Pentagon and many NATO governments are pretty clearly against intervention, and other permanent members on the Security Council will never support it. It would be much better if Obama simply ruled out all of these options from the start, but if going through a review process leads to that conclusion it won’t have done any lasting harm.
There’s no doubt that hardly anyone would be seriously discussing intervention of any kind if Libya’s civil war had broken out last year, or next year, or at almost any other time. Forget Equatorial Guinea. There’s an incipient civil war brewing in Ivory Coast right now between pro- and anti-Gbagbo factions. Gbagbo’s forces have killed civilian protesters, and Gbagbo is a bit of a fanatic who promotes hostility to Burkinabe and other foreigners. Just this week, Gbagbo’s thugs have been attacking foreigners in Abidjan. As far as I know, no government recognizes Gbagbo’s election, but Ivory Coast has nothing to do with the uprisings sweeping through Arab countries, and so it is not the political crisis that anyone cares about at the moment. Libya and Ivory Coast are equally (un)important to the U.S., but one of the crises is on television and dominates the news cycle, and the other draws blank stares and questions asking “where’s that?” What should make us all stop contemplating intervention in Libya is that Western governments probably understand the situation and the competing factions in Ivory Coast much better than they understand what’s happening in Libya, which means that they don’t know very much at all what’s happening there.
Peter Beaumont made this point very well earlier this week:
The reality is that we are rushing to make policy on Libya without knowing precisely what is happening here. That is not to say we do not know some of the broad details. Yes, people are being killed for demonstrating against the regime. People, too, are being taken from their homes amid a widespread policy of intimidation. Human rights abuses are unquestionably being committed. But it is a question of scale. And there is a requirement for a response that fits the reality of what is happening and does not exacerbate the country’s problems, or the region’s.
We should admit our ignorance and own it as we try to determine what is happening in Libya. When we have determined the reality of what we are dealing with then perhaps, and only then, can we talk seriously about appropriate measures to respond to it.