Deciding whether to intervene in Libya, the United States and its allies confronted a terrible situation: the immediate imperative — to prevent a promised massacre by the country’s dictator, versus the many long-term reasons to stay away, from the uncertainty of success to the very question of what success would mean. On balance, we could not stand by and allow Muammar Gadhafi to carry out his grotesque threat.
But the paradoxes of Libya merely underline the broader problem that we face in the sudden democratic turmoil of the Mideast. Change implies risks as well as rewards; policies don’t always result in desired outcomes; and hypocrisy abounds, as we all contend with the legacies of the past.
That is what experience tells us so far. The Obama administration and its European counterparts have stumbled and jostled in embarrassing ways. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, initially dismissed the Tunisian uprising, at huge political cost, and then scrambled to lead the way toward intervention in Libya. Rifts between the White House and the State Department, as well as within NATO, have suggested a worrying vacuum of policy. Yet it is clear that their critics are just as clueless — because there is no simple, single policy toward the “Arab spring” that can be executed without risk or cost.
Certainly there is little consistency so far in the policies and attitudes outlined by President Barack Obama, as revolts spread from the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf. Until now at least, we have demonstrated much greater tolerance for violence by the despots we like in Bahrain (where we maintain an enormous naval base) and in Yemen (where we are trying to extirpate a highly active branch of al-Qaeda) than in Libya, Tunisia or Egypt (where we had such difficulty in deciding how and when to abandon our old pals in the autocratic Hosni Mubarak regime).
Indeed, if we are truly responsible under U.N. doctrine to prevent the massacre of innocents by their governments, then we should probably be preparing for a massive invasion on Sudan, whose regime continues to oppress and kill the people of Darfur.
But perfect consistency isn’t necessarily the hallmark of sensible policy, either. To the neoconservative hawks, for instance, there seems to be no situation that doesn’t cry out for the application of U.S. military force. It doesn’t appear to matter to them that the United States has spent thousands of lives and trillions of dollars on foreign wars during the past decade, including the Iraq misadventure that ought to have disqualified the neoconservatives from serious discussion of foreign policy for a generation. They are always eager for action, especially when they can watch from a distance.
When the president acts, however, his critics on the right can never contain their instinct to undermine. So Newt Gingrich, one of the most outspoken hawks, has already changed his position twice on the Libyan “no-fly” zone. He is still trying to explain what he meant.
In the meantime, President Obama and his advisers must cope every day with abrupt changes in the Mideast, whose real authors and implications remain murky at best. Amid a cacophony of mostly useless advice, they must try to fashion a policy, country by country, that advances our ideals as well as our interests.
What we must begin to show is that we understand and encourage the highest aspirations of the young — that we know, as the president has said many times, that human rights and the desire for self-determination are truly universal. We should begin by making sure that the billions of dollars we permitted to be stolen by the likes of Gadhafi and Mubarak are recovered and restored to the people of those nations.