Monday, March 21, 2011

Ross Douthat: "Don't Know Much About History"

After writing a pretty decent column (save for his inability to state an opinion) on the lack of a case for military intervention in Libya, Ross Douthat follows up by falling flat on his face. President Obama, he tells us, "has delivered a clinic in the liberal way of war", with the issue not being an unwillingness to go to war but that he wants to go to war "in the most multilateral, least cowboyish fashion imaginable."
In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.
In other words, the Obama Administration followed about 99% of the strategy followed by George H.W. Bush in the first Gulf War, the liberation of Kuwait. Build as large a coalition as possible, get U.N. approval, have both French and Arab military involvement, etc. For that matter, it's not far off from where G.W. was in launching the war in Afghanistan, which involved troops from many nations, or in his effort to get both U.N. and Congressional approval and to build as large a coalition as possible for his adventure in Iraq. When Douthat purports,
This is an intervention straight from Bill Clinton’s 1990s playbook, in other words, and a stark departure from the Bush administration’s more unilateralist methods. There are no “coalitions of the willing” here, no dismissive references to “Old Europe,” no “you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”
He misses the point. G.W. wanted to go to war in Iraq with the same type of coalition he was able to muster for Afghanistan, and the same type of coalition his father was able to muster the first time around. The notion of the "coalition of the willing" was meant first to convey that the U.S. was not actually acting alone, and presumably to attempt to shame or otherwise influence those nations that decided not to join the war effort. As Colin Powell put it in 2003,
We now have a coalition of the willing that includes some 30 nations who have publicly said they could be included in such a listing.... And there are 15 other nations, who, for one reason or another do not wish to be publicly named but will be supporting the coalition.
The existence of a coalition was important to G.W. - his administration repeatedly bragged about the number of nations that were involved.

Douthat tells us that the "liberal" way of war... coalition-building that "spreads the burden of military action, sustains rather than weakens our alliances, and takes the edge off the world’s instinctive anti-Americanism" (um... this "instinctive anti-Americanism" is the relative unpopularity of the U.S. in the Muslim world? Because I've not found the developed world to be anti-American in any sense that's meaningful here - as illustrated by the actual coalitions that went into Iraq the first time around, and went into Afghanistan after 9/11. Douthat may not get out much, but when I've been overseas or south of the border people have been able to distinguish "America" from "the current President and his foreign policy.") Douthat announces,
But there are major problems with this approach to war as well. Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.
So a "conservative" war would look like Ronald Reagan's liberation of the tiny island nation of Grenada, but not even slightly like Ronald Reagan's intervention in Lebanon? And just like in every war since WWII, Republican Presidents would take a no holds barred approach to war - which is why we bombed the Red River dams in North Vietnam and took a "nuke 'em till they glow" approach in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? And my, how can we forget the tactial brilliance behind Nixon's "victory with honor" in Vietnam, or G.W.'s total victory over insurgencies in its two wars - at least if a Republican starts it, no U.S. war will ever again last as long as the Vietnam War, right? And that's why President Obama has defined a clear exit strategy for the present intervention in Libya? Please, Ross, tell us more.
These problems dogged American foreign policy throughout the 1990s, the previous high tide of liberal interventionism. In Somalia, the public soured on our humanitarian mission as soon as it became clear that we would be taking casualties as well as dispensing relief supplies.
Somalia? So George H.W. Bush's decision to send troops into Somalia is an example of "liberal internationalist intervention"? Just like the first Gulf War (which as we know involved many months of diplomatic and tactical build-up)?
In the former Yugoslavia, NATO imposed a no-flight zone in 1993, but it took two years of hapless peacekeeping and diplomatic wrangling, during which the war proceeded unabated, before American air strikes finally paved the way for a negotiated peace.
Okay, so Douthat's argument here is that the U.S. should have gone "cowboy", unilaterally invaded and occupied Yugoslavia, and that the end result would have been a faster, stronger peace?
Our 1999 intervention in Kosovo offers an even starker cautionary tale. The NATO bombing campaign helped topple Slobodan Milosevic and midwifed an independent Kosovo. But by raising the stakes for both Milosevic and his Kosovo Liberation Army foes, the West’s intervention probably inspired more bloodletting and ethnic cleansing in the short term, exacerbating the very humanitarian crisis it was intended to forestall.
So, again, the answer would have been a unilateral military invasion, to heck with diplomacy and military coalitions? Seriously, did somebody else write his column last Monday? I'm familiar with the arguments made by factions on both the political left and right that intervention in Kosovo was misguided, counterproductive and illegal. But I fail to see how Kosovo supports Douthat's present notion that it's better to go full cowboy. And that's before I consider that, despite Douthat's sniveling about their liberalism, the outcomes of the interventions in the former Yugoslavia came about in far less time, at far lower cost, and much more in line with U.S. interests than G.W.'s still unfinished war in Iraq.

Douthat complains that members of the coalition going into Libya have different goals, and different conceptions of what military action might look like. Well, no kidding. Given that Douthat was implying that Europeans tend toward "instinctive anti-Americanism" and make a habit of "carping at the United States from the sidelines", he should be the last person to expect a U.S.-European coalition to be of one mind, and when you throw in the Arab League you're pretty much guaranteed that you're going to have open dissent on some of your strategic and tactical decisions. Is Douthat arguing that it would have been better to tell the Arab League, "Sorry, we're not interested in your participation or opinions," and tell the French, "Sorry, but we're not interested in having you share the cost and burdens of this war, or put your pilots' lives at risk when we can instead send in our own jets"? If not, does he even have a point? Wait... I guess the following is his point:
And the time it took to build a multilateral coalition enabled Qaddafi to consolidate his position on the ground, to the point where any cease-fire would leave him in control of most of the country.
Okay, so Douthat believes that the Obama Administration should have intervened more quickly in a war that, a mere week ago, Douthat was telling us didn't warrant U.S. intervention, in order to prevent Qaddafi from potentially prevailing in a civil war that Douthat didn't deem relevant to our nation's interests, because that's what any good "conservative" would have done? Well then, take it away Speaker Boehner:
The President is the commander-in-chief, but the Administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is, better explain what America’s role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished. Before any further military commitments are made, the Administration must do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved.
That's right - the Republican position is basically that the President didn't spend enough time debating intervention, explaining the goals of the intervention and how they would be accomplished, involving Congress in his decision-making process, or articulating an exit strategy. If the official Republican position is that Obama is being a cowboy, does that mean that Douthat is wrong, does it mean that Boehner wants to imperil the intervention by causing the type of delay and committee-based decision-making that Douthat decries even though he would support the action were the President a Republican, or does it mean that within the context of Douthat's conceit the Republican Party is even more squishy and liberal on war than the Democratic Party?

Update: Did some sort of memo get circulated: "Depict Obama as a multilateralist, and tell people that's bad"? Because today David Brooks is on the case, raising a lot of the same points as Douthat.
Yet today, as an impeccably crafted multilateral force intervenes in Libya, certain old feelings are coming back to the surface. These feelings have been buried since the 1990s, when multilateral efforts failed in Kosovo, Rwanda and Iraq.
In the context of the first Gulf War and Kosovo, it would be interesting to know how Brooks defines "failure". Perhaps as, "Succeeding in achieving the stated political and military goals"? And this is to be compared to the rousing success in the second Iraq War, with "success" defined in a similarly counter-intuitive manner? As for Rwanda, the reason intervention failed to stop the slaughter in that nation was because it didn't happen. Funny thing.

Beyond that, Brooks offers the platitudinous observations that a truly multilateral operation requires the involved parties to agree on certain key issues, and that disagreements can arise. He suggests that multilateralism can result in "obsess[ion] about the diplomatic process and ignore the realities on the ground" - I would love to hear about the unilateral wars that neither involved concern about diplomacy nor overlooked any realities on the ground - I doubt Brooks could produce a single example. And, oh no, people are overlooking "the realities" in Libya:
Who are the rebels we are supporting? How weak is the Qaddafi government? How will Libyans react to a Western bombing campaign? Why should we think a no-fly zone will protect civilians when they never have in the past?
The sort of tough questions to which we had solid answers prior to every unilateral military intervention in our nation's history? Where's the reality-based community when you need it? And wow... multilateral military ventures are slow to adapt to changing circumstances? So he's saying that, unlike unilateral ventures, the nations in a multilateral venture might be inclined to declare "mission accomplished", ignore the facts on the ground, and stubbornly adhere to failed policies until they're on the verge of total failure? Fascinating stuff.

Brooks tells us that when multinational forces attack or invade a country, its "defenders will be fighting for land, home, God and country". With unilateral interventions, he thinks the defenders will put down their arms and throw ticker tape parades for the invaders? Hey... that worked for us in Iraq and Israel in Gaza, right? Or is he under the impression that unilateral military actions only occur in the context of two (Godless?) nation states fighting in a third state's territory.

Brooks also repeats Douthat's claim that multilateral interventions involve slow build-ups (because you can apparently teleport military hardware into a war zone, no need even for a staging area, if you act unilaterally).

Update 2: Apparently Douthat's extensive discussion of unilateral action vs. multilateral action and associated criticism of the President's approach was irrelevant to the point he was trying to make. His intent "was to push back against the conceit that the form of a war can vindicate its strategy — that what matters most in warfare is whether you’re 'part of U.N. Security Council approved action'" with approval of the Arab league and the idea that a White House claim of "multilateralism is sufficient to prove that our Libyan venture is far more responsible than the invasion of Iraq".

He again strips the "coalition of the willing", as well as G.W.'s many efforts to get explicit UN sanction for war (before declaring that he was authorized under existing resolutions) from history in order to tell us that, for Iraq, "it’s easy to imagine a more multilateral invasion ending in even greater disaster". Were he to examine the facts he might realize that the reason G.W. wasn't able to build a larger coalition was that the nations that refused to join thought the war was a terrible idea - deferring to the larger international community, including the rest of the world's significant military powers, would have kept the U.S. out of that war. So, once again, his disregard of history undermines his point.

Obviously I'm not going to take issue with Douthat's present argument that "the more important question... is not whether this war is multilateral but whether it is wise", but if that was intended to be his point he sure did a good job of hiding it behind his "irrelevant" gripes about the problems caused by multilateralism. One would think that a column discussing the wisdom of war might include words like "wise", "unwise" or "wisdom".

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