by Frank Schnittger
Thu Sep 8th, 2011 at 10:02:21 AM EST
[Update] First published Thu Mar 31st, 2011.
I thought it might be useful to republish this diary now that the Libyan intervention appears to be entering the end game phase of regime change. As expected "protecting civilians" morphed into regime change, but a major deployment of "boots on the ground" was avoided. We still don't know what the new Libya will look like or precisely how the transition will be accomplished. Have the interventionists like Samantha Power been vindicated by the outcome to date?[End update]
Samantha Power is Special Assistant to President Barack Obama and Senior Director of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights on the Staff of the National Security Council. Born in Ireland in 1970, she emigrated to America with her mother aged 9, and went on to study at Yale and then Harvard. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem from Hell, a study of the U.S. foreign policy response to genocide and then wrote a second book called Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World about the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and United Nations Special Representative in Iraq who was killed in the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad.
An early supporter and foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama when he became a Presidential candidate, she is credited with sparking his interest in the Darfur conflict and human rights issues more generally. In March 2008, during the heated Democratic Primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, she had this to say about their adversary:
'Hillary Clinton's a monster'
"We f* up in Ohio," she admitted. "In Ohio, they are obsessed and Hillary is going to town on it, because she knows Ohio's the only place they can win.
"She is a monster, too - that is off the record - she is stooping to anything," Ms Power said, hastily trying to withdraw her remark.
Ms Power said of the Clinton campaign: "Here, it looks like desperation. I hope it looks like desperation there, too.
"You just look at her and think, 'Ergh'. But if you are poor and she is telling you some story about how Obama is going to take your job away, maybe it will be more effective. The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive."
Samantha Power was forced to resign from the Obama campaign for that candid assessment of the Clinton tactics, but her long-standing relationship with Obama meant that she did manage to secure a senior position on the National Security in the Obama Administration - though not, of course, in Clinton's State Department. Now, together with Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, and Hillary Clinton, she is "credited" with being part of a troika of powerful women who have beaten Secretary of Defence Gates, Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, and John Brennan, Obama's counter-terrorism chief in the argument over intervention in Libya.
Rwandan genocide still haunts Clinton
Three women are being cited by opponents of the intervention in Libya: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, and Dublin-born Professor Samantha Power, a senior adviser at the National Security Council (NSC).
My friend Kevin Myers blames them for feminising foreign policy; others deem them warmongering harpies; yet more think them ignoramuses who -- unlike men -- don't understand the realities of war and are dragging the West into a quagmire; and, of course, others think them heroines who understand right from wrong.
I don't think the three women have particularly defined themselves by their gender, nor are they necessarily aligned on other issues. It seems that the overwhelmingly male US Military and Foreign Policy establishments have made their gender an issue because they don't like to be beaten at their own game and it suits their purpose to frame their opponents as women who have never been at the sharp end of a military conflict.
What is perhaps of greater interest is the fact that their advocacy for the Libyan intervention reunites two very diverse strands in US foreign policy - the liberal interventionist tradition of presidents Wilson and Roosevelt and the neo-conservatives of more recent vintage who advocated for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Against them are ranged the isolationists and "realists" who argue that the USA should only get involved in foreign affairs when vital US national security interests are clearly at stake. For the latter two strands, the fate of civilians at the hands of Gaddafi isn't the USA's problem. Many on the US left, including Booman, have joined the isolationist camp in response to the experience of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
So this isn't a simple argument of Left versus Right. Obama has shown himself as a realist on many issues, pushing back against liberal attempts to chart a more progressive course and counting "realist" Republican Senator Dick Lugar as one of his mentors on foreign policy. President Clinton is said to have been haunted by his failure to intervene in the Rwandan Genocide and Samantha Power has written critically of Bystanders to Genocide [Rwanda]. Many critics point to the inconsistency of intervening in Libya and not in any number of strife torn and human rights abusive countries around the world.
So what really tilted the balance in favour of a limited intervention in Libya and not elsewhere? The strategic importance of oil? The support of key Europeans allies and the Arab League? The possibility that the intervention truly could be time and scope limited? The possibility that there really could be a foreign policy success here in contrast to the disastrous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq? Obama has been criticised for not explaining his war aims either to Congress or the American people and is due to make his first major speech on the conflict tonight - 9 days after the military intervention began. Is it regime change as Obama has hinted, or simply an effort to protect civilians as stated in the UN resolution?
The truth is that foreign policy is ever a complex and nuanced business with few certainties or issues which can be accurately defined in black and white terms. No doubt Clinton, Rice and Power succeeded in raising the human rights dimension to the conflict, but few know what sort of regime is likely to replace Gaddafi should he be successfully toppled. Protecting citizens can easily morph into regime change and attempts at "nation building" in the image of some idealised notion of democracy. Beyond wanting to get rid of Gaddafi, few insurgents appear to have clear ideas on what the new Libya should look like.
Libya could represent a good test case of what Obama and the US establishment have learnt from Afghanistan and Iraq. The first few lessons appear to have been:
- Avoid Unilateral engagement
- Build a broad based coalition.
- Don't take the lead unless it is clearly in your national interest.
- Limit the scope of the intervention
- Devolve the primary responsibility for the peace after the conflict to the Libyans themselves - sooner rather than later - without trying to interpose yourself as a nation builder.
Where this gets really messy if it looks like a prolonged stalemate might ensue and civilian casualties mount up in any case. What if reducing civilian casualties can only be achieved by regime change and regime change cannot be achieved without "boots on the ground"? What if the conflicts in Yemen, Bahrain and/or Syria become even more messy? Sooner or later we will reach the limits of effective military intervention and have to recognise that political problems cannot always be resolved by military means. We will be back to boring old diplomacy, sanctions and UN peace keeping missions being the faltering instruments of choice, to the disgust of the more macho militarists of the neo-conservative right and the military industrial complex who think that might is not only right, but that escalating military action is the only effective tool-kit for international relations.
If the Libyan conflict helps to achieve a more sophisticated and nuanced US foreign policy, it may not have been entirely in vain - whether or not Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi is ultimately toppled by the Nato led intervention.