As missiles fly, pols still at odds

Demonstrator in Thessaloniki, Greece, yesterday burns a European flag to protest military action against Libya.
Demonstrator in Thessaloniki, Greece, yesterday burns a European flag to protest military action against Libya.
Posted: March 22, 2011

IT MAY TELL you something about the politics of the U.S. and Libya that it's been mentally unglued media gabber Glenn Beck who arguably best captures the tortured national zeitgeist.

It was Beck who last week - during one of his trademark TV rants on the Fox News Channel - groused that we weren't willing to attack the North African nation until the French dragged us into it, and then complained just 20 seconds later because now we were attacking Libya. Said Beck: "God help us all if it all boils over in Libya."

The weird thing is that somewhere in there (and I can't believe I'm writing this), Beck is probably right . . . about something. He's torn about the United States lobbing bombs at yet another country in the Middle East, while the American people as a whole are deeply torn - and so am I.

After all, liberal-and-anti-war-minded folks like me have long argued that some wars are OK because they stop mass killings of civilians - consider the NATO campaign in Bosnia. But then those Pentagon-approved pictures of cruise-missile launches look exactly like the misguided mission in Iraq.

So is Tripoli another Sarajevo, or Baghdad? I'm confused, and if the polls and the punditry are any indication, so are you.

What can you say about a war in which one well-known lawmaker has suggested that President Obama could be impeached for launching missiles at Moammar Gadhafi's regime. That lawmaker: an ultraliberal member of Obama's own party, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, of Ohio.

Meanwhile, conservatives who went to the mat defending President George W. Bush's military adventures now can't seem to bring themselves to voice enthusiasm or support for a Democratic president's war moves.

The military outcome in Libya is still very much up in the air - but four days since more than 100 cruise missiles were launched by U.S. warships in coordination with French and British warplanes, one thing is clear: The famous maxim - uttered by a U.S. senator at the end of World War II - that American "politics stops at the water's edge" may have finally crashed and burned on the shores of Tripoli.

Both a new poll and commentary online and from politically conflicted members of Congress show that most liberals are supporting a Democratic president, but mutely, not eager to cheerlead for bombing Libya after a decade of carping about bombing nearby Iraq. Conservatives who overwhelmingly oppose Obama now oppose Obama's war, too.

What gives? Here are some questions and answers about the politics of Libya.

Q. What do the American people think?

A. Last night, the first major poll taken since Obama's announcement that the U.S. would join the coalition enforcing a no-fly zone and taking other measures aimed at stopping pro-Gadhafi forces from killing civilians showed a slim margin of public support. A surprisingly slim margin. The CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted Friday through Sunday found that when asked broadly whether they approved of Obama's handling of the Libya crisis, just 50 percent backed the president and 41 percent did not - not far off from his overall approval ratings.

Q. How does that compare to past presidents taking military action?

A. Tepid, at best. Ronald Reagan, whose overall popularity foundered in the deep recession of 1982-83, saw his overall approval rating spike to 55 percent after invading Grenada in the fall of 1983, even though his muddled policy in the Middle East led to the death of 241 Marines in a Beirut bombing that same week. Both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush saw even bigger leaps in support after waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Q. What are liberals saying about the fighting in Libya?

A. For the most part, as little as possible. The widely read liberal-oriented website Daily Kos is practically a "no-fly zone" when it comes to voicing opinions on U.S. firepower against Gadhafi. Last night, none of the top 10 reader-submitted diaries on the site dealt with Libya, the story that has dominated mainstream news for four days. Instead, liberal posters were writing about labor unrest in Wisconsin or the nuclear-plant crisis in Japan.

Still, some anti-war progressives have been openly critical of Obama - "We couldn't afford the other two wars we were already fighting," liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald wrote on the Huffington Post last night - and other congressional Democrats joined Kucinich in complaining about the lack of a public debate on intervention.

Q. So is there an argument in favor of war?

A. Yes, and the underlying moral concept is a sound one. Most experts say that aides in the Obama administration - including national-security aide Samantha Power, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, and eventually Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - persuaded the president over time to back the principle of R2P.

Q. R2P! What the heck is that?

A. Ah, good question. It stands for "Responsibility to Protect," and it's a concept at the core of Power's advocacy on genocide that is increasingly backed within the United Nations. Simply put, it's the idea that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians from mass killing, to prevent yet another Rwanda or Darfur, even if that effort requires military force.

But the fact that the Obama administration has now endorsed that principle - some pundits were calling it "the Obama Doctrine" this weekend - with little public awareness shows that the prewar debate was insufficient.

Q. Is all of this because Libya has oil?

A. You have to wonder - no one is hankering for U.S. military action to stop the political bloodshed in the resource-poor Ivory Coast.

Q. Is this scheme going to work?

A. Unclear. Western intervention would have probably tipped the scales against Gadhafi two weeks ago, when the dictator appeared on the ropes, but since then a string of pro-Gadhafi victories means that just a no-fly zone won't be enough to bring permanent victory to the rebel forces.

That would take assaults on Gadhafi's troops on the ground, which arguably goes beyond the U.N. mandate.

The truth is we won't know whether it's Bosnia or Iraq until it's too late to do anything about it.

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