President Obama has received a great deal of criticism over the past several weeks about how his administration has handled the American reaction to the revolution in Libya. This criticism has covered the gamut of possible actions and solutions. George Bush-like, some have lambasted him for timidity, suggesting that the United States come much more forcefully to the aid of Libyan rebels in the form of a no-fly zone or more; John McCain and Joe Lieberman respresent this strand of opinion; at the other end of the GOP spectrum, Richard Lugar of Indiana has broken with Obama for getting at all involved. Within his own party, most of the criticism has come from the left, which wants no US involvement militarily in Libya (or Afghanistan or Iraq, one might add). At the same time, a few remind Obama about a potential Rwanda-style humanitarian disaster (an analogy almost certainly overblown) unless the United States does something about Colonel Qadhafi.
The merits of the situation are at best murky, thereby allowing advocacy of a broad range of options without any danger of bumping too closely into the facts. Two things, however, seem clear to me at this point. One is that the loose coalition of anti-Qadhafi factions cannot possibly win (i.e. overthrow Qadhafi) without outside assistance; indeed, it is not at all certain that this “revolution” can persist without outsiders suppressing the government’s attempts to destroy them, as events showed last week. The balance of power is not on the rebels’ side. Qadhafi has the guns, and the absence of meaningful uprisings in the western part of the country (notably Tripoli) indicates either that the rebellion lacks comprehensive support or that pro-government supporters are capable of suppressing the rebels. In either case, it looks like the only way the rebellion can succeed is with a great deal of outside help–something like a massive intervention against the Libyan government. Such an action is problematical in principle (these things often do not work at all, and even when they do, the outcomes are rarely what one hoped they might be). No one seems to be advocating such an intervention, but the logic dictates that eventually it will have to be contemplated when stalemate proves not to be enough.
That leads to the second clear point: we still do not have a good handle on who exactly the rebels are. Certainly the foot soldiers are non-radical citizens who are simply sick of Qadhafi and want to see him gone. Most outsiders share that sentiment,which is why there is more support for active moves than there might otherwise be. But is that all the leadership wants? What do we know about these people–who are they? where do they come from? what is their politics? It is becoming clear that there is no single leadership cadre; that instead there are alternative aspirants to post-Qadhafi leadership. Before one becomes too involved in replacing one leadership with another, it is always nice to know what the replacement will be like. Do we know this? For that matter, do the Libyans themselves know this?
If my assessment is at all sanguine, the situation on the ground in Libya would seem to counsel a slow, measured approach to involvement on the ground, which is pretty much what the White House is pursuing. Yet, the hounds continue to bay. Why?
Let me suggest two reasons that are stated in the title of this post. The first is the hyper-partisanship that has infected all American politics and, increasingly American foreign policy. The basic dynamic is that all aspects of political life are now framed in increasingly strident ideological language, mostly along partisan party lines, and politics has become a zero-sum game in which one side succeeds at the other side’s expense. Democrats blame Republicans for everything that happens and everything the GOP does in response, and vice versa. As this phenomenon has become more pervasive, its effect has been to paralyze (or “gridlock”) the political system: the battle over keeping the government going is the most obvious example. In times past, foreign policy was exempt from much of this sniping (“politics ends at the water’s edge”). It no longer is, unfortunately. (This theme is developed more fully in a book Pat Haney and I are co-authoring, American Foreign Policy in a New Era, due out in January 2012).
The other problem is a lack of consensus on guiding first principles that inform foreign policy. If one side or another was communist (the Cold War), the response would be easy. Immediately after 9/11, the charge that one side was composed of terrorists would also serve as an activator. Col. Qadhafi has tried that one, accusing the opposition of being Al Qaeda dupes, but it has not worked. Anti-terrorism is still a theme of American policy, but it is not longer a supreme first principle. In the current situation, we have no real guiding grand strategy, and so part of our bickering reflects a disagreement on what should activate the United States in a place like Libya that is based on first premises on which there is no depth of agreement.
This leaves the president tip-toeing through a minefield, where any step he takes will set off another explosion. His response, it seems to me, has been to activate what used to be revered as a highly desirable leadership trait: pragmatism (the approach of dealing with problems on their individual merits rather than in conformance with some pre-existing ideological framework). That approach is not much in vogue today, attacked from both sides as being unprincipled–wishy-washy in Charlier Brown language. Yet, pragmatism in this situation probably argues for caution before we know the answers to the kinds of questions raised above, and it is hard for me to understand how anyone could disagree about that. But then, someone will probably disagree about when we can disagree as well.