As Ross Douthat points out in today’s New York Times, our intervention in Libya is more or less a “clinic in the liberal way of waging war.” Which is to say that it’s multilateral, blessed by the United Nations, humanitarian in intent, tangential to the national interest and conducted in a somewhat half-hearted manner without a clear goal such as victory.
These concerns are well founded and the month of dithering before the air strikes began made the task a lot more difficult. The precedents set by similar U.S. interventions, such as the 1999 air war with Serbia over Kosovo ought to worry everyone, especially since, as Douthat notes, the ultimate result there, ethnic cleansing and yet another small unviable ethnic Balkan state wasn’t what Americans set out to accomplish.
But that doesn’t mean that President Obama’s ultimate decision to commit U.S. forces to the fight wasn’t right. The war that we have put ourselves in the middle of may be a lot messier than Obama thought but ending Muammar Qaddafi’s rule of terror is an eminently defensible policy. And if American and other international forces are properly used to achieve that end, then Obama will have, almost in spite of his own distrust of American power and disbelief in his country as a force for good, done the right thing.
But curiously enough, Obama’s dotting of all the internationalist i’s and crossing all his multilateralist t’s isn’t enough for some of the liberal hawks who prayed for a president who would eschew George W. Bush’s unilateralist tendencies. At the other end of the ideological spectrum from Douthat is Peter Beinart, who writes in today’s Daily Beast to express skepticism about the Libyan adventure and to ponder the rights and wrongs of liberal interventionism. Like Douthat, Beinart says that the roots of the current war are to be found in an examination of the Balkan wars of the 1990s and describes himself as a “Bosnia hawk.” Beinart says he and fellow advocates of stopping Serbian atrocities were spared having to deal with the complications of a messy war because Milosevic caved twice just when push might have come to shove. He worries that Qaddafi will prove more obdurate and bring the current enterprise to grief since liberals haven’t the staying power to support wars that create casualties and other complications.
It’s an interesting point but his caveats about Libya say much more about the character of these self-described “liberal hawks” than it does about the virtues of President Obama’s decision. It’s not that the American people are unwilling to make sacrifices or show patience when those qualities are needed during wars, though it must be admitted that everyone likes short, easy, and bloodless conflicts better than long drawn out ones. Rather, the truth about liberal hawkism is that while Beinart and his fellow left-leaning birds like to talk a good game about human rights and preventing genocides, they are only for wars when they are cost-free and popular. As Abe Greenwald wrote in COMMENTARY in May 2009, in “Liberal Hawks, RIP,” tracing the history of Beinart and similar writers on the Iraq war reveals this school of thought to be one that is devoid of even a semblance of principle or consistency. They were all for a war until the going got tough and were AWOL even after possible defeat was transformed into victory by the surge without which any future consideration of humanitarian intervention today would not be possible.
Beinart’s carping at Obama shows that the bottom of line of such liberal hawks is their distrust of American power even when a president who shares their sensibilities employs it. The virtue of waging war while a liberal leads the country is that it is less likely that the left will take to the streets in great numbers against a Democratic president. But if Obama is counting on ideological fellow travelers like Beinart to have his back as he tiptoes into a war whose objective he has difficulty articulating, he’s dreaming.