Those showers in Washington last week? That wasn’t rain. That was Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, and the other architects of post-war American foreign policy looking down and weeping on us. Or worse.
The heirs and custodians of their tradition never sounded so thick. In place of George Kennan’s 8000-word Long Telegram about the Soviet Union, the Obama administration’s consultant and its former State Department policy planning chief, Anne-Marie Slaughter, issued a forceful tweet about Libya. Citing (and, in his conduct, faithfully channeling) Douglas MacArthur, Obama’s defense secretary purposefully narrowed the president’s range of options, advising an audience of cadets at West Point, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Not to worry. Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes cautioned even against the temptation “to go out day after day with cathartic statements that make us feel good.” This as the president went out day after day with cathartic statements that didn’t make us feel good, but certainly testified to his own virtue and good intentions.
Meanwhile, the historical analogy industry went into high gear. Was Libya Bosnia or was it Iraq, was it Kosovo or was it Somalia? Which is, really to say, was Libya Munich or was it Vietnam? Since the putative “lessons” of history continue to be stupidly confined to these two events, once the loop got underway, everyone knew their cues. In this atmosphere of slow-motion capitulation to mass murder, subliterate commentators and slippery politicians erased any hope of engaging in a disinterested search of the past in order to find something that might illuminate the present. The headline of a Maureen Dowd column, “In Search of Monsters,” neatly summarized the syllogism that, if George W. Bush searched for monsters to destroy, it follows that monsters must not exist. Likening Libya to Iraq and Vietnam, Gates and other members of the Obama team stage-managed the public’s fears as if they were virtues, exploiting the fact that, as E.H. Carr put it, “today’s citizen has that pronounced need for and is particularly susceptible to analogies.” On the question of what to do about Libya, ignorance has polluted everyday public discourse; dishonesty has nullified it.
“The many uses of analogy,” the historian David Hackett Fischer writes in his splendid Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, “are balanced by the mischief which arises from its abuse.” This last week, then, has been a week of abuse, the chief culprit being the combination of an unknowing assumption (Dowd, et al.) and a knowing insinuation (Gates, et al.) that, because two events resemble each other in some respects, they must therefore be alike in all respects. Fischer identifies the central fallacy here: “That rubber ball and that apple are both red. …That apple is very good to eat. Therefore, this rubber ball will be very good to eat.” What makes this, and today’s Libya analogies, so plainly false is not the one thing that two episodes possess in common, but the many more that they do not.
But the ghost of Vietnam follows us everywhere—Beirut, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, and now Libya. (I miss Richard Holbrooke, who constantly argued that “Bosnia was not Vietnam, the Serbs were not the Vietcong, and Belgrade was not Hanoi.”) In its revised version, the Vietnam Syndrome, now called the Iraq Syndrome, has generated “lessons,” too. Senator Lindsey Graham, for one, says about Libya, “You have to think these things through. One thing I’ve learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, you have to think these things through.” Gates, who warns that a “no-fly zone means attacking Libya,” clearly has no use for another Vietnam in the sand. Nor, finally, does the president himself, who came to power on the strength of his opposition to the “bad war” in Iraq and famously previewed the war in Afghanistan by reading Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Obama insists the Libyan leader “has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave.” Yet, having portrayed the dictator as malignant, Obama, adhering to the lessons of Iraq, has opted for equivocal action.
Is it really necessary to point out that, lessons notwithstanding, Libya is not Iraq? (It is not Bosnia or Rwanda, either, but, given the administration’s modest definition of American purpose, its members won’t be summoning these precedents any time soon.) The Obama team ought to respond to the Libya crisis on its own terms, if it intends to respond at all. That means acknowledging the differences between Libya and Iraq: the disparity between Saddam Hussein’s 500,000-man army and Muammar Qaddafi’s 50,000-man (and shrinking) army; the distinction between the size of Iraq’s population and Libya’s population, which adds up to about 20 percent of Iraq’s and mostly inhabits a thin slice of coastline; the difference between an essentially American enterprise and an undertaking that has the sanction of the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and marches to the tune of La Marseillaise; the difference between a dictator whose crimes (presumably) belonged to the past and one who vows to “cleanse Libya house by house” and, by all accounts, has proved himself keen to do so; the difference between Iraq, with no viable opposition movement, and Libya, which boasts an active and well-armed rebel force; the difference between a country frozen in the amber of authoritarianism a decade ago and an entire region awash in a wave of successful popular uprisings today.
Most of all, paying due respect to reality means acknowledging this distinction between Iraq and Libya: In the former, the population was passive, bulldozed into silence, or it reflexively bucked outside intervention; in Libya, voices from one side of the argument have been roaring Solzhenitsyn’s 30-year-old admonition to “interfere as much as you can. We beg you to come and interfere.” But we have not interfered. Thus another difference from Iraq: President Bush was bent on going to Baghdad; Obama may find himself in command of a juggernaut, but he clearly has a distaste for things military. Bush enshrined preemption in official policy; Obama simply has eliminated any obligation to link punishment to offense.
Although Obama’s Libya policy may not be the product of principled analysis—in matters of national security, the president may entertain certain proclivities or inclinations, but he can hardly be said to have evinced firm principles—it does bear some familiar hallmarks. There is, above all, the sense that the awesome military power of the United States has been somehow tainted, marred by past American support for too many unsavory characters and past involvement in too many suspect conflicts, above all the war in Iraq. For some in his administration—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for one, who has said, “Absent international authorization, the United States acting alone would be stepping into a situation the consequences of which would be unforeseeable”—multilateralism would remove that taint by guaranteeing that, henceforth, the United States would employ its power only in concert with and on behalf of the “world community.” For Obama, however, this may not be enough.
It feels as if nothing has been remembered and nothing learned prior to 2003. The problem in Libya, after all, is not a lack of capability. The problem is confusion—at the top—regarding the utility of force as an instrument of policy. But if what is being proposed is a no-fly zone—and that is what’s on the table—perhaps we ought to be looking at past experience with no-fly zones, rather than, say, full-on invasions and occupations. (Deceptive as they mean to be, some historical analogies do hold more explanatory power than others.) True, the top brass maneuvering inside the Beltway to ensure that Obama, not military commanders, take the fall for this one have resurrected the all-or-nothing arguments of the Powell Doctrine. But the United States military routinely embarks on operations other than war—operations characterized by precision, discrimination, and an exquisite sensitivity to political control and consideration.
The United States has implemented no-fly zones on three occasions over the past 20 years—in Northern Iraq in 1991, Southern Iraq in 1992, and in Bosnia that same year. In Bosnia and Southern Iraq, the aggressors outmatched those we meant to protect even on the ground. But the lethal combination of Kurdish ground fighters and American air cover drove Saddam Hussein’s army back behind lines they never again crossed. A humanitarian triumph was the result. Members of the Obama team argue that a no fly-zone, as its envoy to NATO, Ivo Daalder, put it, “isn’t really going to impact” the tide of battle in Libya, as “they really have a limited effect against ... helicopters or the kind of ground operations that we’ve seen.” This is idiocy. The Kurdish no-fly zone banned all aircraft, helicopters and jets, and, absent either, Qaddafi’s forces would be operating from a severe disadvantage.
Of course, none of these details really matter anymore. It is getting late, and the problem in Washington is will—or, more exactly, its unjust absence. With a similar complaint, then-Secretary of State George Shultz likened America to “the Hamlet of nations, worrying endlessly over whether and how to respond” to its foes. Shultz was indulging in a bit of analogical inference. But it was in the Shakespearian realm. So let me add this: If he really does possess the heightened moral awareness that his boosters claim, Obama may soon—very soon—find himself professing shock at the discovery of blood on his hands.
Lawrence F. Kaplan is a contributing editor for The New Republic.