I would think America might count itself fortunate to have witnessed abrupt regime change in two North African countries, and perhaps a third in coming days, without having lifted a finger to bring about the fall Mubarak, Gadhafi and the autocrat in Tunis.
Removing Saddam Hussein cost U.S. taxpayers a minimum of $1 trillion. Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist for the World Bank, estimates the final bill will be closer to $3 trillion. Soldiers today have a far greater chance of being wounded than killed in battle. Given their youth, these wounded troops will be a financial burden on Uncle Sam for generations. That's the nature of modern warfare and advances in costly medical treatment. There is no morally sound alternative to providing that care to men and women who have worn the uniform.
The armchair generals of a meddling disposition are at it again, though. Slate's Chris Hitchens, who came to rue pushing so hard for regime change in Iraq, now accuses Obama of being "secretly Swiss" in failing to overtly push from power tyrants already on the way out under the power of local insurrections. This is "Hitch," after all, who casually slurs the U.S. President and Switzerland while failing to delight in how dictators have been dislodged through genuine "people power" and not U.S. meddling.
Leon Wieseltier in New Republic is annoyed that Obama said of Gadhafi's clinging to power simly "This violence must stop" - sort of like your typical unread newspaper editorial's toothless assertion that this or that injustice "must stop."
"Now we are disappointing Tripoli," writes Wieseltier. "It is so foolish, and so sad, and so indecent."
Now, "we" aren't disappointing Tripoli. Obama is disappointing Wieseltier and Hitchens. America is not disappoint proud Libyans who'd rather bring about change on their own.
"Indecency," I think, is the death of more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers and a minimum of 200,000 Iraqi civilians, plus the 2003 exodus of Iraq's doctors, engineers, administrative bureaucrats and everyone else who could afford to flee Rumsfeld's chaos on the ground - two million evacuees of the people who previously ran the country - followed by waves of "ethnic cleansing" as Shia and Sunni co-existing prior to that point now had full rein to force the "internal displacement" (a cruel euphemism, that) of an additional two million Iraqis now safely ghettoized - those that didn't perish in street fights and home invasions.
Hitch can be explained, sadly, by the faded glories of British imperialism he seeks vicariously to enjoy at the expense of U.S. taxpayers exhorted by foreigners to meddle in the world. (To that list one adds Hitch's fellow Brits Niall Ferguson and Max Boot, and Canadian natives Michael Ignatieff, Margaret McMillan and David Frum.) Why a grown-up nation like the U.S. would be so responsive to others urging them to spill American blood and treasure in a cause of uncertain moral legitimacy and devilish complexity in the execution is beyond me, save that the foreign-born voices nicely dovetailed with the agenda of WH neo-cons sufficed with hubris in imagining they could reshape the Middle East to their pleasing.
It surprises me that so many intelligent folk have yet to take the measure of the U.S. president. Do they not recall in the midst of the 2008 primaries the reckless Georgian leader pulling the tail of Russia once too often, triggering a Russian invasion that prompted John McCain to pronounce within hours that "We're all Georgians now!" Candidate Obama immediately called on both sides for a cessation of hostilities, but waited several days to even hint at taking sides. Which he ultimately didn't do, while hinting that the hothead Georgian leader had indeed over-reached. And that was the conclusion of a year-long U.N. examination of the episode, sadly lost on U.S. foreign-policy hands and certainly the likes of the armchair warriors. History repeats itself as we learn, after Hitch and Wieseltier had urged blood lust on the president, that the WH constraint on Libyan intervention had much to do with all the U.S. citizens in that country that would have been as endangered as Gadhafi's mercenaries had Obama obliged the interventionists with the immediate air strikes they called for. (There were Canadians in Libya, too, many employed by Petro-Canada, which like other oil multinationals has been hastily evacuating non-Libyans from the country.)
And I do find it odd - this is a tradition of generations' standing - that whenever something happens in the world, the U.S. is expected to do something about it. Mostly it's the Americans themselves who feel this way - I'm talking the upper policy-making echelons, not folks raking the leaves of their suburban Rochester ranch houses - who convince themselves that their intervention is required in some form or another. It could be harsh words, the threat or imposition of sanctions, dispatching the 101st Airborne of the Sixth Fleet, whatever. Americans are impatient people, and bystanding is not not for them an attractive behavior, even when it's judiciously called for.
I'd invite the Americans of this belief to contemplate an insurrection in Texas or New England, necessitating, in the minds of the British, French or Russians, that they intervene in another country's affairs. I can assure you, no matter the allegiances and desire for assistance of those wishing to secede from the U.S., that even they, and certainly the rest of America, would be livid, and for generations if not centuries, that an outsider had in any manner intervened in U.S. affairs. Even an intemperate speech in Paris about U.S. behavior in the world can lead to - well, did lead to, "Freedom Fries." Yet Americans freely intervene worldwide, assuming this comes with the territory of superpower status.
The endgame of that doctrine is "imperial over-reach," the fate of every empire previous to Pax Americana. The U.S. would do well to husband its resources, and apply them to manifest problems at home, influencing the world as a good example in caring for its own.
How long will it be, I wonder, before the U.S. grasps that this meddling alone, no matter how well-intentioned Americans convince themselves it is, has been the principal cause of the widespread anti-Americanism in the world today? The U.S. is doing its best to financially prop up a regime in Islamabad, in the name both of humanitarianism and in seeking help fighting al-Qaeda, that has made the U.S. heartily disliked by 148 million Pakistanis who, at the least, are resentful of outside intervention, no matter how high-minded it might be. (Which it isn't.) Sadly, it's the same story in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has only condemnation among everyday Afghans for its presence there.
And gosh, out of the blue, two kleptocratic regimes fall, and Libya is poised to be the third in the space of two months, without America's fingerprints all over change brought about, for once, almost entirely by the people who lived under that tyranny.
Again, this extraordinary episode of almost indescrible complexity required a deftness for which Americans aren't known, yet the current U.S. chief executive possesses in rare abundance.
Tom Ricks, an apologist for U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, chatted recently with his Foreign Policy colleague Robert Kaplan, a longtime foreign correspondent, about Obama's handling of the unforeseen Egyptian crisis. I disagree with both Ricks' and Obama's commitment to an unwinnable Afghan conflict, and Kaplan has been more of an interventionist over the years than history has shown to be wise.
Yet I took some hope from this conversation, related in Ricks' Foreign Policy blog, the Best Defense:
In his own blog post, Hicks had given Obama a B+ for the president's reaction to the sudden turn of events in Egypt. And, Hicks tells us, "Bob said no, more of an A-. He reasoned thusly:
President Obama has thus far handled the crisis in Egypt rather well. He has been attacked in some quarters for a muddled response. But what is forgotten is that he had to accomplish two contradictory things, which automatically necessitate a degree of muddle. For one thing, he had to be on the right side of history, with the democracy demonstrators in Tahrir Square. But he also had to signal to pro-American monarchs and autocrats in other Arab countries that he was not about to desert them. And that meant not throwing Mubarak overboard too soon. Rulers like King Abdullah in Jordan and Sultan Qabus in Oman are, in fact, enlightened and moderate autocrats who deserve America's support, even as they are critical regional allies. The Saudi royals are less enlightened, but protect the Western world's oil supply. We do not want to be party to any of these regimes crumbling because of the combination of street protests and perceived lack of U. S. support. Obama's cerebral, cautious response was exactly what was called for.
Mackenzie King's sage advice to Paul Martin Sr., then among the youngest of his cabinet officers and infused with zeal for social-justice programs like Medicare, which would have to wait until the public was accepting of sweeping welfare programs, was that "a leader will be measured more for the bad things he prevents than the good things he brings about."
In preventing a global financial meltdown, rescuing the U.S.-owned auto industry, and pumping a record stimulus into an economy in free-fall, Obama has mostly prevented bad things from getting worse. Each of those three initiatives has been deeply unpopular, and Dems go into the 2012 electoral cycle with the less-than-winsome campaign slogan "It could have been worse."
We prevented things from getting worse - we kept joblesssness to 9.7% when it was heading for 25% to 30% in the absense of a banking rescue - is not the kind of "Morning in America" slogan one would hope to be able to run on. And Obama has played offense, big time, with Obamacare.
But it's the sober contemplation of the unintended consequences of even the most overtly "right" things to do - what could be more "right" than toppling a mass-murderer like Saddam? - that will put Obama in historians' ranking of the top 10 presidents.
And, not that it matters especially, but the austerity-pinched British military insists it lacks the resources even for a modest military mission in Libya, if PM David Cameron was so rash to plan one. French foreign policy in a region, North Africa, in which it not long ago was a colonial power, has been shown to be bankrupt by events of the past two months. Non-U.S. NATO members, which had to be dragged into Afghanistan and have for the most part fought their half-heartedly, once again would prefer the U.S. deal with a problem in Europe's backyard, a with Bill Clinton finally intervening to stop the genocide in the Balkans. The GOP presidential hopefuls, to a man and woman, have shown no smarts in what needs doing in post-revolution North Africa and, if it comes to that, the Middle East. And Bob Gates has just, to widespread acclaim, because it's common sense, vowed that it would be unwise for the U.S. to ever again to commit to another war like America fought in Iraq and is still pursuing in Afghanistan. "In my opinion," Gates told West Point cadets Friday, "any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it."
I don't think Dubya ever recovered from the scorn in some quarters for his father's "failure" in the Gulf War to pursue Saddam to Baghdad. But Bush 41 was a career diplomat (envoy to China, U.S. ambassador to the U.N.) who knew better than to whack that hornets' nest. And Bush Sr. was acutely aware that he had a U.N. mandate to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and no more. Bush 41 chose to go home rather than invade Iraq, and trigger the immediate implosion of the remarkable 19-member coalition of troop-contributing forces James Baker had created for him, which included France, Canada and even Pakistan and Egypt, fellow Muslim countries with Iraq. Bush Sr. also rightly feared "owning" an invaded Iraq. Ironically, Dick Cheney, Bush's then-defense secretary, whole-heartedly agreed, and I use that term "whole-hearted" because Cheney would spend the early 1990s defending what his boss did in not marching on Baghdad. Then Cheney had a series of cardiac scares, and, as so often happens with heart-attack victims, emerged a different man. At the time of the 2003 Iraq invasion, even close friends and erstwhile WH colleagues like Brent Scowcroft, who opposed the invasion, said they no longer knew Dick Cheney, his worldview had changed so fundamentally.
To be sure, Bush 41 was wrong to exhort Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, which cost those who did so their lives absent U.S. military support. But he initiated a decade of punishing sanctions and no-fly zones covering two-thirds of Iraq that severely degraded Saddam's military power, so that he was a paper tiger by 2003, posing a threat to no one.
Obama's not the sort to get into these kinds of scrapes (a $3-trillion blunder is more than a scrape, to be sure, along with global U.S. unpopularity). He inherited Afghanistan, the war Dubya should have fought to completion. And one only hopes credible reports of a talks with the Taliban for a negotiated settlement are true, since that is the only practical resolution. Currently, Canadians and troops from the other 41 troop-contributing nations in Afghanistan are dying for a manifestly corrupt Karzai regime that is understandably despised by everyday Afghans. By association with the Kabul regime, Canadian and U.S. troops are both hobbled in their task and widely disliked.
It's absurdly early to draw comparisons between Obama and Richelieu or Metternich. But already Obama has shown enough of FDR's tactical finesse to merit close study on adept solutions to the most complex challenges.
I'm not arguing for a resurgence of the U.S. isolationism that marked the interval between the 20th centuries' two world wars. Only for what Colin Powell, and Ike before him, demanded of proposed U.S. military or covert action beyond American borders: that it be morally sound, adequately resourced, and executed with common sense. Since no war plan survives the first battle, military action obviously is the least attractive option in confronting any international disturbance of concern to the U.S. Rumsfeld assured Americans their troops would be home by Christmas 2003. They are still in Iraq, eight years later. But then, Canadian troops headed off to Europe in 1914 having also been told of their imminent effortless victory over the Hun; and in the hectic recruiting after Pearl Harbor, G.I.s also were under the impression theirs would be a brief war.
In the meantime, the world is rid of a tyrant in Egypt and, with luck, another in Libya. And this without America's reputation being sullied or its depleted treasury dinged.
Not bad for government work, as they say.