In the Arena

The Perils of Punditry: Libya Edition

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Fareed Zakaria does a good job laying out many of the perils and possibilities of U.S. military action in Libya in this week’s print edition. Fareed favors US military action in the mildest, most reluctant and reasonable manner imaginable; I have opposed it, less mildly but with equal reluctance. I  agree with Fareed in this respect: I hope that we’ll “get lucky” in Libya–and Gaddafi will pack up his famous tent, settle somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa or be murdered by one of his retinue. It may happen. And if it does, all my fears will have been proven groundless–if, that is, the next Libyan government proves moderate and humane.

But a decade of watching our heightened interactions with the Islamic world has led me to fear the worst. The one thing I’ve learned, above all others, is that there are always unintended consequences–and those consequences are almost always negative. This cloudy reality is terrible news for those who play the pundit game, given that talking heads are expected to be vehement in one way or another. Yesterday, I found myself on Morning Joe with Howard Dean, who was as vehement in favor of the Libya action as he was vehemently opposed to the Iraq war. He said, without qualification, that all we had to do was get rid of Gaddafi and all would be well. I asked him how he knew that for sure, how was this different from Saddam in 2003. He said that in 2003 the government was “lying” to us about Weapons of Mass Destruction. That’s never been proven. What can be said with absolute certainty is that in 2003, the Bush Administration hurtled into war on the basis of insufficient information and wishful thinking–that Ahmed Chalabi would slip neatly into place as Saddam’s successor, among other things–and similar wishful thinking may be taking place today about the nature of the Libyan opposition.

Some other problems with the Libya punditry:

1. As Fareed mentions–and as I did last week–the extraordinary diplomacy that took place in the days preceding the military action has received insufficient attention. It is very difficult for a US President to stand aside when both the Arab League and the United Nations recommend military action. That was unprecedented. In the future, though, this precedent will allow us to make better informed decisions: if the Arab League and the UN recommend military action, think twice. No sooner did we begin the bombing of Gaddafi’s air defenses that made the no-fly zone possible than the Arab League began complaining that we were being too violent. Apparently the Arab League is only in favor of non-violent violence. Can an Arab League condemnation of western imperialist intervention be far behind?

2. There has been all sorts of consternation about the confusion at NATO headquarters as well. In the future, there should be none: we are NATO. Only we have the experience, equipment and logistical capability to lead a military action, even one that seems a nominally simple as a no-fly zone. The President’s notion that we can take a subsidiary role is more wishful thinking, a conceit without substance. As Jim Miklazewski of NBC reported yesterday, we have fired more than 120 cruise missiles and the British have fired 12–which apparently depleted their entire supply of said missiles. The French were derided as well for jumping the gun on the action and, allegedly, dropping only one bomb. I suspect we’ll find that information is incorrect. Even if it isn’t, we’d do well not to deride our allies–especially the French and the British, who have sustained many, many casualties in Afghanistan–but we should be aware of their limitations.

3. For every theoretical argument in favor of intervention in these cases, there is an equally valid argument against it. All of them are made of Swiss cheese, but the arguments against intervention should be taken more seriously than those in favor. For example, there are those who say American prestige is on the line now that the President has said–foolishly, I believe–that Gaddafi must go, and those who say that if we don’t stand against this (or that) dictator, we’ll be impeding the revolutionary surge through the region. I could argue with equal vehemence that any American-led military action (and believe me, even this UN-Arab League-NATO-sanctioned action is perceived in the region as American-led) will be seen as yet another example of western neocolonialism and give ballast to the arguments of Islamic extremists.

4. The most powerful argument for intervention is humanitarian, to prevent a massacre. But where and when does this responsibility stop? Syria just massacred at least 25 protesters; Yemen has massacred hundreds. There are the enduring horrors in Zimbabwe and the more recent inhumanity in Cote D’Ivoire. Well, you might argue, we should intervene when we can. (This is usually when Rwanda enters the argument.) Sure, if genocide is about to be committed by a force that doesn’t have air defenses or much of a military, it’s probably safe to intervene–but how often is that the case, and at what point does our intenvention impede the ability of local forces to come to a settlement? (As it may be doing, now, in Afghanistan.)

5. There are two powerful arguments against intervention. First, the unintended consequences mentioned above. If Gaddafi isn’t murdered or sent packing in the next week or so, are we prepared to maintain the no-fly zone for years and years, as we did in Iraq? If there is a stalemate on the ground, will we be sucked deeper and deeper into support for the rebels? Will this become Somalia–a classic humanitarian intervention that went bad? The second argument is more theoretical but no less powerful: what are the opportunity costs of this intervention? What, for example, could we have done with the $1 trillion spent in Iraq? This Libya intervention will undoubtedly cost billions–which could have been spent more profitably, as I’ve argued, in countries that matter more to our national interests than Libya does. Egypt, for example. And there is the second-level of opportunity costs: the amount of Presidential time and effort that could have been spent on other matters–like the need for economic development here at home.

6. And that’s the last peril of Libya punditry: there is a segregation of talking heads–they tend to be either foreign or domestic. Those who specialize in foreign or military affairs tend to know little or nothing about what’s happening within our borders. Those who specialize in domestic politics tend not to understand that vital impact on our national security that a country like Pakistan, for example, plays. Those who’ve argued for Libya intervention have been, for the most part, those who do not focus on the waning economic power of the United States, the need to rethink our long-term deficits, the need to invest in our future. They tend to think more about the Middle East than the Middle West. That leads to skewed priorities. (The best among them, like Fareed, have been paying more attention to the problems here at home in recent months).

Since 9/11, I’ve tried–to the extent that I can–to think about, and report from, both Middles, East and West. I understand that we have a role to play in the world. But I also try to understand what the world looks like if you’re an unemployed machinist in Ohio. I thought that decisive action against the Islamic extremists who attacked us was necessary after 9/11–but I’ve learned since that decisive action was (a) nearly impossible and (b) that the threat was not nearly as dire as I feared. The problems in the Middle West are far more important right now than those in Libya…

And having said that, I now perform the ultimate punditic about-face: I’ll be spending the next two weeks in the Middle East. The blogging may be sporadic…but I promise that when I return, I’ll be spending a lot more time on the road in the middle west.