I remember sitting by a pool in August 1990 with my friend Fred Siegel discussing George H.W. Bush’s “drawing a line in the sand” after Iraq had invaded Kuwait. “My comrades on the left can’t be against this,” I announced to Fred, but I was dead wrong. Within days, my own publication, In These Times, and others had raised specters of another Vietnam and of U.S. imperialism. I have had a similar experience of shock and awe today as I looked at various blogs and websites that air opinion on the left.
Fittingly enough, the world’s first airstrike came exactly a century ago, on an autumn day in 1911. Eerily enough, it came in Libya, where, one day during the Italian-Turkish war of 1911-1912, Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti flew his paper-thin Taube monoplane over a camp of Turks and Arabs, dropped four hand grenades (having pulled the pins out with his teeth), and generated headlines such as this: “AVIATOR LT. GAVOTTI THROWS BOMB ON ENEMY CAMP.
After only a few days of allied military action, the Libyan nightmare has been averted, and the rebels are now marching westward again. Like the invincible Serbian juggernaut of yore, the power of Muammar Qaddafi, which frightened Secretary Gates, has been shaken. President Obama has done an admirable thing. On March 18, he gave a speech explaining his decision. The speech was both ringing and baffling: as the poet said, I wish he would explain his explanation. What follows is a commentary on some of the president’s statements.
1. An article by David Kirkpatrick in The New York Times reported that three volumes of Muammar Qaddafi’s heavy thoughts had over the years become mandatory reading for Libyans. I don’t know whether Hitler’s Mein Kampf or Mao Zedong’s Red Book is the more apt analogy for this sort of brain-washing. But I do remember from decades ago when many of my fellow graduate students were reading the Mao bible at least as much to absorb the great ideas as for scholarly purposes. Some of these are now full professors at serious American universities.
On Wednesday, March 28, 1979, an accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A valve that was supposed to close remained open, permitting large amounts of water—normally used to cool the plant’s core—to escape. For several hours, operators did not realize that the valve was open, and, as the containment building lost coolant, both temperatures and radiation levels rose.
Over the past few days, President Obama has surprised us. For weeks, he seemed committed to avoiding military action against Libya—even though Libyans were imploring America and the West to come to their aid. But at the very last minute, when Muammar Qaddafi seemed to be only days and perhaps hours away from retaking the remainder of his country by force, Obama decided to act. It was a decision we wish he would have arrived at weeks ago. But it was the right decision.
There are so many things wrong with the Libyan intervention that it is hard to know where to begin. So, a few big things, in no particular order: First, it is radically unclear what the purpose of the intervention is—there is no endgame, as a U.S. official told reporters. Is the goal to rescue a failed rebellion, turn things around, use Western armies to do what the rebels couldn’t do themselves: overthrow Qaddafi? Or is it just to keep the fighting going for as long as possible, in the hope that the rebellion will catch fire, and Libyans will get rid of the Qaddafi regime by themselves?
Today the world's attention is riveted by the U.N. strikes on Libya and the battle for Benghazi, as that nation's future hangs precariously in the balance. But whatever happens in the coming weeks or months, one thing is clear: The chances of a drawn-out insurgency in Libya are very high. History offers a number of sign posts that an insurgency will occur. Unfortunately Libya has almost all of them. At this point the political objectives of the government and anti-government forces are irreconcilable. Each side wants total victory—either Qaddafi will retain total power or he will be gone.
As the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in the town of Ohkuma continues, and plant engineers and first responders endanger their lives to keep fuel rods and containment units cool, it is critical to consider how Japan’s commitment to nuclear power arose in the first place. It was no twist of fate or invisible market-hand that created 55 nuclear reactors in a seismically active country smaller than the state of California.
The old order has crumbled in the Middle East, and it will never be the same again. But what made it crumble? The experts who had been arguing that the youth in the region constituted a listless generation that did not care about freedom and democracy, that, if it was politically active at all, tended to follow the lead of the Islamists, have been proved wrong.