Thursday, March 17, 2011
Miiracle at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
The United States seemed for a long while not to sense what was at stake in this conflict. A repeated call by the rebels themselves and their supporters for a "no-fly zone" appeared to stir concern and preoccupation with the complexities of carrying this out, the fact that, duh!, it would require taking out Gaddafi's air defenses, and would thus be getting involved in, well, a war. Obviously, US defense and military leaders, spooked by the hobgoblins of Iraq and Afghanistan, were loath to get involved in another "war" in a Third World hell hole, I mean "send a land army into Asia, the Middle East or Africa." They took the lead in the administration in expressing this view.
But in other recesses of the Administration, other views were being expressed. In the White House itself, the President had already made some bold statements in support of the rebels and that Gaddafi "had lost his legitimacy, and must go." But that was when rebel victories were piling up and ultimate victory seemed as inevitable as those of democratic forces in Tunisia and Egypt. But Libya is not either of those two countries, where leaders were toppled by peaceful protests and where the armed forces played a first neutral and then decisive role in dictators stepping down. Perhaps nobody in the US government thought that Gadaffi, crazy as a loon, could rally his forces to push back. But he and his regime proved much more resourceful. Crazy like a fox, seemed a more appropriate characterization.
As Gaddafi's forces took the initiative and rolled over the rebels, a debate of major proportions must have been going on within the administration. I believe that liberals in the White House and the State Department felt that we needed to be firmly on the side of history in this conflict and were also moved by the spector of a nationwide massacre of civilians associated with the revolt similar to a Bosnia and maybe even a Rwanda, or something that could be so characterized. In the White House, such a voice would be coming from foreign policy advisor Samantha Power (of "A Problem From Hell," about the genocide in Rwanda), and other "liberals." At the State Department, I am quite sure that people around Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were interpreting the importance of the wave of Arab rebellions and urging military action. However, the White House and State Department were spooked by their own hobgoblin, that of unilateral US action, stemming from Iraq, without UN authorization. The only problem is that the US was not taking the lead at the UN in seeking military action.
Then everything changed when the Gaddafi forces started rolling back the rebel cities, one after another, and a major human tragedy appeared in the making. Suddenly something clicked. But it is more than that. An activist position was a secret desire of Administration liberals but they were unwilling to appear to be taking on the Defense Department's wariness of another major military commitment. (I am sympathetic to some extent because Afghanistan is really hard and has required an enormous commitment by DoD and the military, remains a delicate and dangerous problem, but issue should crowd out another of national importance. Inevitably, we must fight the wars we have to fight, not the one's we choose to fight.) But the key element that added to this switch was the position of conservative Republicans and neocons who from the very beginning favored a more activist and militarist position. This both embarrassed the administration but also gave them political cover to do what they really wanted to do but were scared to do.
What followed was both a miracle at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and one at 1st Ave. and 44th St. in New York.