Well, that was quick! It usually takes some time for the gap between how a White House justifies a military adventure to the public, and the reality of what is really going on to be revealed. It took the fall of Saddam Hussein for the Bush administration’s pretext for war—the threat of weapons of mass destruction—to be shown up as a fabrication. But from President Obama’s televised address on the evening of March 29, in which he claimed that the intervention in Libya was not about regime change, to the Reuters story revealing that he had signed an order allowing covert U.S. operations in Libya at least a week before the speech, and possibly longer, took—what?—24 hours. And so in we go to Libya, as both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists have been pressing for all along.
In his speech, the president insisted that there was no comparison between Iraq and Libya, and that broadening the U.S. military mission “to include regime change would be a mistake.” In reality, of course, that is exactly what Washington has done. President Obama made much of U.N. sanction and the multinational nature of the no-fly zone, and boasted that the United States had now handed over the lead role to our “allies and partners in NATO.” But this is disingenuous nonsense. From a military perspective, NATO without U.S. military assets is not a particularly redoubtable force. It is true that, politically, the French government pressed hard for more aggressive military moves to support the Libyan insurgency. But despite President Obama’s assertions to the contrary, the overwhelming preponderance of bombs, missiles, and bullets fired at Colonel Qaddafi’s forces have been from U.S. ships and aircraft.
The figures tell the story: As of March 28, that is, the day before the president’s speech, the United States had fired 199 Tomahawk missiles at Libyan targets in Operation Odyssey Dawn. The sum total launched by the armed forces of all other countries participating in what President Obama is pleased to call “the coalition” is seven. And, according to the Department of Defense, out of 600 precision-guided bombs dropped up through that same date, 455 were from American warplanes. At a press conference given at the Pentagon by Vice-Admiral Bill Gortney of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, a reporter pointed out to the admiral that the AC-130 gunships and the A-10 “tank busting” aircraft he had announced American forces were using in the operations were usually described as “combat support aircraft.” Gortney’s response was a priceless piece of Pentagon obfuscation. “I don’t call them combat support,” he said. “They’re combat aircraft and they deliver a precision effect.”
To blame the admiral for this bit of Jesuitical newspeak would be a mistake. If what the United States is doing in Libya today is, effectively, providing air support for the insurgents while pretending to be conducting what President Obama described in his speech as one “narrowly focused on saving lives,” that is the White House’s fault, not the Pentagon’s, whose senior officials are simply deferring, as soldiers in democratic armies are supposed to do, to the policies of their civilian commander-in-chief. As it has turned out, even this close air support has not actually been enough to allow the insurgents to win on the ground, as the recent counterattack by Qaddafi’s troops has demonstrated. Presumably, this is why there is now talk of weapons shipments to the insurgents, and even some suggestion that what NATO commanders refer to with a straight face as peacekeepers might be deployed in Libya, even though, without U.N. sanction, these soldiers would have no more right call themselves peacekeepers than Russian troops did in Tajikistan in the 1990s or in South Ossetia or Abkhazia today.
In a sense, what some are hailing as the Obama Doctrine on so-called humanitarian intervention seems like nothing so much as fusion of the liberal interventionism of the 1990s, during the period that stretched from Bosnia through Kosovo to Sierra Leone, and the neoconservative interventionism of the Bush era. Indeed, despite what liberal interventionist supporters of President Obama and of the Libyan war have claimed, there was little in the president’s speech that, stripped of some of its religious cloaking, could not have come out of the mouth of George W. Bush, above all the Bush of the “democracy exporting/wars fought in the name of values” Second Inaugural in 2005. Liberal interventionists indignantly deny this of course, claiming that they believe in multilateralism whereas neoconservatives do not, and that they believe in soft power, or, in Secretary of State Clinton’s formulation, smart power, whereas neoconservatives are fixated on hard power.
The problem with this is that the liberal interventionists’ idea of multilateralism is one in which other nations join America’s efforts. “The world works best when America leads” is the way the late Richard Holbrooke liked to put it, which neatly encapsulates the liberal hawks’ view that they can have U.S. hegemony and multilateralism, which a more skeptical observer might be tempted to call hegemony without tears. But most of this is institutional sleight of hand. These interventions happen if the United States will provide the muscle and don’t if it will not. That is how defenders of the Libyan war—up to an including the president—can pretend that the fact that formally there is indeed a coalition, and that the United States has technically ceded the lead role in the operation to NATO (again, as if NATO was not a U.S.-dominated institution), makes such an intervention a horse of an entirely different color from those initiated by the horrid neocons, and never mind that, on this logic, in strictly institutional terms, the Soviets could have called the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 a Warsaw Pact operation.
In reality, what separates the liberal interventionist and neoconservative approaches to so-called humanitarian military interventions are perfect illustrations of Freud’s idea of the narcissism of small differences. Both sides think it is America’s duty to reshape the world into a more democratic place. And no matter which side’s narrative is in the ascendant, the results somehow always turn out to be war.
David Rieff is a contributing editor for The New Republic.
Follow @tnr on Twitter.