Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Speechifying A Moderate Mission

President Obama had a tough task--belatedly explaining and justifying not just the current mission in Libya but also why it will not go further and why the US will not be dropping bombs on all repressive autocrats.  Given American war-weariness, and the multiple boxes he had to check, it was not a bad speech, but it was also not his greatest one.  He saves the best speeches for the truly controversial yet personal moments, like on race and religion. 

I live-tweeted the speech, so I have, as a result, fragmented thoughts on it.  The best summary I had was: ""with great but finite power comes selective responsibility with friends."  The US cannot intervene everywhere nor should it, but when we have enough agreement to do so (with burden-sharing) and can make a difference, we ought to do so.  A couple of key ingredients in this were/are: allies and unique capabilities.

First, It is pretty clear that the French and British were much more interested in this, and they convinced the US to go along.  Kind of the opposite of Iraq in 2003.  The emphasis on burden-sharing was definitely a way to distinguish this effort from Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan.  Of course, we still have heaps of caveats and other restrictions constraining the commanders of the Libyan mission.  Moreover, the most deceptive part of the speech was the idea that shifting from US-led to NATO-led would mean the US is significantly less involved.  Um, we are a member of NATO, and we tend to do lots of the heavy lifting (see below), so saying it is moving from US to NATO is significant but not as much as it played here.

Second, the US does have unique capabilities.  In my year in the Pentagon, the phrase was "low density/high demand" referring to those capabilities that were seen as both very necessary and very scarce.  In this case, that would be many of the surveillance capabilities that have facilitated accurate targeting, probably the refueling aircraft, and certainly the Tomahawks.  On day one, over 120 accurate cruise missiles were launched at Libyan command and control centers, air defenses and so on.  Two of those were British missiles, and the rest were American.  Could the French and British do this without the US?  Yes, but it would have taken longer to gain complete control over the air, the targeting probably would have been less accurate (with more collateral damage), and the rebels would have had a harder time reversing the momentum.

There are complex issues about whether to apply responsibility to protect consistently and how this speech fits into a larger Obama doctrine.  Luckily, the Duck of Minerva has folks who address these issues quite clearly, with Stephanie Calvin addressing the former and Dan Nexon the latter.  My own take regarding consistency is that Churchill was right about foolish consistency.  The only way to be consistent on R2P is to do nothing anywhere.  There is no way the US or the world can intervene everywhere.  So, the real question is: what is the criteria by which countries discriminate?  For ethnic groups, I would argue have repeated argued that the domestic politics of countries is paramount so that they take the sides with which the most important constituents have ethnic ties.  In this case, the key factor for the US does not seem to be ethnic ties, but efficacy--that we can make a difference here and now at relatively little cost.  For the French, it might be about immigration prevention or taking nationalist stands at a time of political weakness.  The reality will always be that countries pick and choose which battles to fight, and domestic politics will play a significant role in those decisions.  That might make it hard to assess the morality of the choices, but, then again, I make no claims at normative expertise.  I call them on how I see their causes and their effectiveness rather than on the "should" question.

In terms of doctrine, I still think pragmatists by definition cannot really be doctrinaire.  Hence my snarky take of selective responsibility with friends.

There will be plenty of stuff on the net this morning about the speech.  Hopefully, we can all wade through it and still make progress on our day jobs.

1 comment:

PSmith said...

While I agree with the spirit of R2P, in practice I think we need to be much more cautious than we have been in determining where and when to intervene. While I agree that ethnic ties between countries are an important factor to consider, I don't think they can trump efficacy considerations. There are always a variety of tools at our disposal and the negative consequences of military intervention very often outweigh the positives. There should be a very high standard for military interventions which must include cost-benefit calculations considering we risk doing more harm than good just to appear as though we are responding to the situation.