Daniel Larison’s Libya Fixation
Via Andrew Sullivan I’ve come across this Daniel Larison post on the ascension of Susan Rice and Samantha Power. It is not his best work, although its flaws are rather predictable for anyone whose read Larison on the Libya intervention before. And for those that haven’t, a spoiler: he really, really, really hated the intervention in Libya at the time, and still hates it today.
That’s fine. Intervening in Libya was hardly a no-brainer, and its implementation was far from flawless. While the Administration’s embrace of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine is, potentially, one of its greatest achievements, the White House took shortcuts in order to make it happen. Even if the War Powers Act is traditionally more honored in the breach, Obama brushed it off like so much dirt on his shoulder.
And because they knew the intervention would never be truly supported but rather tolerated by the American people — and still this only if it happened quickly and with little to no American casualties — the necessary resources for a post-Gadaffi Libya were never secured, much less deployed. The result is an unstable country awash with arms and with little to no civil society to maintain cohesion and order. Not good.
But when Larison puts on his mind-reading cap, as he does here, he really goes too far:
Most of the immediate reaction to the news about Rice and Power has been to conclude that liberal interventionism is once again on the rise inside the administration. Some have interpreted the appointments to mean that more aggressive action in Syria could be in the offing. Given the record of both women and their advocacy for the Libyan war, those are understandable responses, and they might end up being proven right. Fortunately, it seems for now that they aren’t correct at least as far as it concerns Syria. As it turns out, Rice reportedly agrees more with Obama than with liberal hawks on this, and it seems that the Libyan war was a sufficiently sobering experience even for some of its original advocates that they aren’t eager to try again.
From what I can tell, he’s got absolutely no evidence for this bit of psychoanalysis; and that’s problematic, considering how dramatic a reversal this would be on Power and Rice’s part! Imagine, for example, I said that the reason Barack Obama hasn’t annihilated every last vestige of the George W. Bush anti-terror national security state is because he’s decided Bush was right about everything. That would be only a slight exaggeration of the logic Larison’s wielding here.
A more reasonable understanding of why Power and Rice are opposed to intervening in Syria — despite having advocated for intervention in Libya — is, of course, that the situations are not the same.
Libya was a politically and in significant ways geographically isolated country in which the embattled despot was marching on a rebel-held city after previously urging his partisans to “cleanse” the country of the rebel “rats” — words that immediately struck terror into anyone who’s studied genocide, war crimes, and the key role that dehumanizing language plays in their coming about. What’s more, the Libya intervention happened only after being sanctioned by both the Arab League and the UN Security Council, and supported by most of America’s closest allies in the West.
In Syria, on the other hand, it’s not clear who needs protecting from whom. And even if the “good guys” could be separated from the “bad guys,” there’s no chance that a similar international go-ahead would be forthcoming. These are hugely consequential differences, and when Larison ignores them, he creates the impression that advocates of intervention believe in it regardless of the circumstances or context, which is unfair and untrue in equal measure.