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Why Is the Press Spending So Much Time Obsessing About Libya?

The U.S. economy being what it is, it should come as no surprise that most Americans, including the minority with a keen interest in foreign policy, have been focused on domestic issues. What is less understandable is why that internationally-minded remnant should have been so concerned with events in Libya to the virtual exclusion of any other part of the world. This has been particularly true of mainstream liberals, and the media outlets that reflect their views, above all the New York Times, CBS, ABC, and NBC. (The American right, with its far more ambivalent and skeptical view of the Arab Spring generally and the NATO- and Qatari-backed uprising against the Qaddafi tyranny, has been noticeably more reticent.) The true explanation, I suspect, is the rekindling of a deep, if recently dormant, instinct in American political life and thought.

There are some obvious explanations, but the more one delves into them, the less persuasive they become. Yes, this is an age of terrorism, and Qaddafi was an early pioneer of contemporary terror, with the Lockerbie bombing prefiguring some of al Qaeda’s plots. But there was no great wave of popular indignation when the Bush administration and Tony Blair made the deal with Qaddafi that, in exchange for Libya giving up its nuclear program, brought the dictator in from the cold and led to considerable cooperation on counter-terrorism between Tripoli and Washington and London. Yes, the Arab Spring, of which the Libyan uprising is generally assumed to be a manifestation, has seemed to offer hope for a decent politics in a part of the world about which most Americans tend to be extremely pessimistic. But Libya is a tiny country, far from the political center of gravity of the Arab world. (The success of the Arab Spring depends much more on what happens in Iraq, where the Maliki dictatorship continues to consolidate power under the radar, on Syria, and, most importantly on Egypt.)

And yes, the U.S. played a central role in the military support for the uprising, and, in doing so, seemed to vindicate liberals’ faith in humanitarian intervention, so badly shaken by Iraq, for which, at the outset, these same media outlets had been fervent cheerleaders. But, if anything, Obama administration officials and liberal supporters of the Libyan intervention have gone to great lengths to downplay that involvement (not to mention occlude the central role of Qatar, a country that the U.S. State Department itself has criticized for keeping the foreign workers who make up the majority of its population in many cases “under circumstances that constituted forced labor”).

The deeper explanation, I think, is that, in their own eyes at least, Libya represents vindication for liberal hawks, who, in the aftermath of Iraq, were unsure what their stance was with regard to U.S. global hegemony and the idea that they had long supported: That on balance the world was a better place with an internationalist U.S. on standby both to keep the peace and further democracy, even, in at least a few extreme cases, at the point of a gun. The former executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, wrote recently that at the beginning of the Iraq War he thought of himself and other mainstream commentators belonging to a “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club.” But given the liberal interventionist consensus of the Clinton era, was the pro-war inclination of the media really so surprising?

Despite what is commonly assumed, even at the height of the disenchantment with the Iraq intervention, the idea of America as a benign and indispensable hegemon had never entirely gone away. Many of the same activists and pundits who belatedly came to criticize the Iraq intervention, including figures like Samantha Power (one of the few to oppose it from the start) who is now influential in the Obama administration, were fervent in their desire for an outside intervention in Darfur. (Somewhere, Paul Wolfowitz must be laughing.) And now, these liberal interventionists can point to success in Libya, which supposedly has proved that American military power could still be a force for good in the world and that critics of that power, whether from the isolationist right or the anti-imperialist left, are mistaken.

As the Times columnist Nicholas Kristof put it, in an ecstatic dispatch he filed from Tripoli shortly after it fell to insurgent forces, “We Americans have seen military interventions go awry—we are still seared by Vietnam and Iraq—and caution is worthwhile…yet to me Libya is a reminder that sometimes it is possible to use military tools to advance humanitarian causes.” In his Times column the previous day, Kristof’s colleague, Roger Cohen, had gone even further. Despite the folly of invading Iraq, which he admitted that he had been wrong to support, Cohen insisted that the U.S. decision to intervene in Libya had not only been good for the Libyan people, but that it was good for the United States as well. “Interventionism,” he wrote, “is inextricable from the American idea. If the United States retreats into isolationism, it ceases to be itself.”

This was a breathtaking claim. In effect, Cohen was arguing that without at least the possibility of humanitarian interventions on behalf of what he described as the country’s dedication “to a universalist idea of freedom,” morally and culturally America was at existential risk. The Tea Party’s most hysterical warnings about what will happen to the United States if it fails to honor its traditions are obviously different in substance from Cohen’s cautions, but in their apocalyptic tone they are a match.

This is not to say that what appears like the successful overthrow of Qaddafi will lead to a serious push for similar American action in Syria, let alone in Iran (even if, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, the tone of Kristof’s column about pro-American opinion in liberated Tripoli is eerily reminiscent of equally celebratory coverage of Baghdad in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein). And, in fairness, in their columns, both Kristof and Cohen explicitly warn against such moves. But it does mean that the American belief in its own missionary destiny, which if not necessarily the majority view in the country as a whole, is certainly subscribed to by most of the policy elite on both the liberal and conservative sides. It also means that the establishment’s confidence in the inherent moral goodness of the United States’ international project remains largely intact. (Americans do, of course, reserve the right to judge individual policies to be morally indefensible and politically stupid. See here the current liberal hawk consensus over Iraq).

Unfortunately, this suggests that while Syria will not be the next Libya, let alone the next Iraq, the American policy elite’s interventionism is not only alive and well, but living in the Obama White House. It is a cliché that, during stock market bubbles, the Wall Street party line is that “this time it’s different.” Doubtless when liberal hawks begin to muster support for the next Iraq—and, given the staying power of the interventionist consensus that Libya has revealed, sooner or later it will come—they will make a similar claim.

It will be just as false.

David Rieff is the author of eight books including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.