Commentary: Why no Libya policy is the best policy

Special to McClatchy NewspapersApril 5, 2011 

The whining noises of bombs being dropped have been heard loudly on the news of late. They are not caused by the missiles fired at Moammar Gadhafi’s forces. They are the sounds being made by the many critics of President Obama’s actions in Libya.

For some of those armchair field marshals, his efforts have been too slow, for others too fast. Some argue the United States is being too aggressive and others assert not aggressive enough. A number believe we should not have gotten in without having a date and an exit strategy for getting out. And then there is the complaint that the “Obama doctrine” established by this intervention does not provide a clear template that can be applied in every future humanitarian emergency.

The fact that the response is not the same in very case does not make America the land of the inconsistent and the home of the hypocrites. What it means is that in today’s world, the best policy is sometimes not to have a policy despite what the critics say. And it also reflects the fact that the world’s only superpower is not all-powerful.

Of course whatever Obama does, there is a stampede to the nearest microphone to denounce it. Even a less rabid right-winger like George Will likened the decision about Libya to the Bay of Pigs. If he wanted to talk about the unintended consequences of foreign intervention, he did not have to dig so hard. Hint: a better, more recent example is a four-letter word beginning with I.

Will neglected to mention that the Bay of Pigs was carried out by Cuban exiles who were encouraged, trained and supplied by the CIA. The invasion failed because of a lack of popular support and because President Kennedy rejected the urgings of his advisors to bail out the effort with American air power. So the analogy between Libya today and Cuba in1960 is not exactly exact.

While those who argue for a “doctrine” include more than the talking heads on Fox and the historically impaired, it is still inappropriate for our time. Striving for a universally applicable policy overlooks the fact that each case has to be judged on its own merits and is affected by our commitments elsewhere. And the course of events can never be predicted with precision, so it might not be wise to construct a rigid timetable and then let Gadhafi decide whether it is met. Many of those now demanding an exit strategy for Libya were criticizing Obama not too long ago for talking about one for Iraq.

But most important of all is the fact that a doctrine cannot take into account in advance the views of the rest of the world. Some would argue that, given American power, there is no need to consider the opinion of others when determining American policy. The Libyan case demonstrates that what the rest of the world thinks does and should matter.

When major European nations and the Arab League were calling for action and the UN was ready to endorse the measures necessary, could the United States really have just said no? Could a nation, which considers itself a champion of democracy and human rights, done nothing while Gadhafi described precisely how he was going to kill his countrymen in Benghazi and the world called for an effort to stop him?

There are no problems that we face today that are not caused, or at least greatly exacerbated, by globalization. And because globalization strengthens anything that can transcend national boundaries and weakens anything constrained by them, no nation can successfully address these issues alone.

The United States will therefore have to act in concert with other countries to deal with such challenges. A coalition of the coerced and co-opted, as was cobbled together for the invasion of Iraq, will not suffice. And it cannot be simply when we alone decide the time is right and the cause is just.

A 19th century French politician once said “There go the people. I must follow them for I am their leader.” If the United States is to lead, there are times when it must follow.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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