I’ve been asked about this a couple of times, and Obama’s powerful speech last night creates an opportunity to talk about it: The military action in Libya. I hope Juan Cole is right and I’m wrong on this, but my skepticism is firm. There’s always a chance this could become more Bosnia, less Iraq or Afghanistan. But there’s reasons to be suspicious, and I agree with Roy Edroso here:
But for all its advantages, this approach still leads back to the same place we’ve been stuck for nine years — and, seen a certain way, for much longer than that. I can believe Obama is very different from the imperialist Westerners who’ve been fucking over small states for generations, and still believe that the best way for him to show his difference is to stay out of their affairs insofar as possible. We don’t have a great track record since World War II, and while Obama appears to think that the best way to fix that is to do foreign intervention right this time, I would prefer a cooling-off period. Always leave ‘em wanting more.
Here are my concerns: Obama, rightfully, wants to right our relationships with the broadly-named Muslim world by demonstrating that we’ve grown past our imperialist tendencies. Great goal! But his strategy, as Roy as noted, is less “show them that we really mean it by not interfering” and more “make this a competition between you and your predecessor over who can do it right”. The latter urge, by the way, is why wars are so hard to extract yourself when you get into them. Cutting your losses is hard. Letting the other guy get you into a situation and then failing to finish the job correctly is even harder. Never, ever underestimate the ego of a politician, even those with good intentions.
My problem with this strategy is it falls right into one of the worst liberal traps, which is thinking politics works on an intellectual, nuanced level when it in fact works on a broad, emotion-based level. This is true here, there, everywhere. It’s a universal problem. So if you say, “We really don’t want to be imperialists,” people who are suspicious of you are going to say, “Then why are you still firing guns in nations where your noses don’t belong?” They’re probably not interested in your nuanced rationalizations. This is doubly true of people who are highly motivated to rally people against you. Every bullet fired can be assumed to be money donated to their propaganda. Obama’s hope is that successfully putting down Qaddafi will take the knees off of these arguments, and it very well might—if this goes exactly as planned. Does it ever, though? That’s my concern.
My broader concern has little, honestly, to do with this latest war adventure and more my frustrations with the U.S. and its defense program in general. It’s fucking ridiculous that we are perpetually at war with someone, but we’ve completely abandoned the Constitutional requirement to declare war before going to war. I’m not an absolutist on this or anything. If troops are attacked or our country is invaded, feel free to self-defend before a formal declaration. But the fact that no President, Democratic or Republican, even bothers to pay tribute to this legal restraint on what has become a tyrannical power bothers me.
And I think the reason is simply that our military is ridiculously large. When you spend as much money as we do on a military year after year, I think it starts to seem criminal not to use it. It’s like as if you spent twice as much on a big house and then only use two rooms in it. You’re going to start to feel guilty. Seriously, we spend so much money on our military it’s ridiculous. It becomes a self-rationalizing thing. If you don’t use it regularly, people are going to start talking about—gasp!—cutting defense spending. Can’t have that.
Because we spend an obscene amount of money on defense, we will always end up paying for and leading these actions. I find it especially ironic that Republicans always bitch about the leadership role that the U.S. takes on these peacekeeping missions. That’s like being the guy who insists, over your spouse’s protests, that you’re going to buy that ginormous SUV that seats ten people, claiming that if you don’t, everyone in the neighborhood will think you’re a pussy. And then you complain when it’s always on you to drive when you get together with your 9 closest friends for a road trip. Sensible people look at this situation, and buy a smaller car if they don’t like being the driver everywhere. A two-seater is an especially good way to avoid driving duty. But we are always driving, which Obama alluded to when he described our “unique” role in the world.
Meanwhile, we’re funding this giant SUV and its ridiculous gas bill, and telling our starving family we don’t have money to pay the mortgage or for food, and they’ll just have to pick through garbage and sleep on the street (and certainly not in the SUV, because they’re dirty and will fuck up the interior). Like Bob Herbert said in his last column:
The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely.
I realize this is a problem that should have been fixed before Libya started to erupt into civil war, but the fact that it continues not to be fixed is being highlighted by our role in this military action compared to the other nations that are involved.