I’m of two minds on the subject of the United States’ current air strikes in Libya. On the one hand, I do not believe that humanitarian impulses are a sufficient justification for US military action, but on the other hand I am open to the argument that Muammar Qadhafi’s past support for anti-American terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction constitute a sufficient interest for American intervention.
Whatever the answer is, two things are clear—the nation is ill served by President Barack Obama’s inability to clearly explain our objectives, and the Right is ill served by foreign policy analysis informed more by the party affiliation of the current commander-in-chief than by coherent principles.
Watching Sean Hannity this week, I can’t help but fear the former is at work. On March 6, Hannity said:
It seems to me that it becomes a no-brainer. In other words, look, here we have a mass slaughter of people going on, and we have military jets bombing innocent civilians. The country is going down the tubes. And Qaddafi obviously has to go. And the U.S. doesn’t have the moral authority to lead and it is hesitant and it’s slow to react? I’m having a hard time understanding why?
Compare that with his words on March 21:
The president said in Rio, you know, we are going to make the world safe from tyrants. Are we going to Sudan? Are we going after Mugabe? Are we going to go in Bahrain, Yemen? Are we going to insert ourselves in Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia? Are we going to insert ourselves in Saudi Arabia? I mean, what is — how do we define success here? What is our mission here? And what is the new Obama standard here?
Or March 22:
When — I don’t know what to make of this. Is this now the Obama doctrine? That if there is a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place and the international community is onboard, that we can’t standby with empty words, we have to take some action. Does that apply to Mugabe, Sudan, taking him out? Does that apply to, you know, Syria, Lebanon? You know, where do we take this? Is it Bahrain? Saudi Arabia? What does that mean?
So when Libyans were getting killed while Obama seemed distracted by basketball, it was a “no-brainer” that the US had to take action to stop the carnage, and Hannity had “a hard time understanding why” the White House was “hesitant” and “slow to react.” But now that Obama has taken action to stop the carnage, Hannity doesn’t “know what to make of this,” and fears that doing what he wanted done on March 6 (and what President George W. Bush set forth as one of the guiding principles of his foreign policy) might mean biting off far more than we can chew.
If that fear sounds familiar, that’s because it was one of the prominent arguments against the Iraq War, which Hannity supported. Now, I supported (and still support) the Iraq War too, because it was clearly justified on national security grounds, but recall that Hannity’s chief rebuttal to that conflict’s critics was strictly humanitarian:
If you guys had your way, the torture chambers and mass graves would continue […] Your way would appease evil.
Yes, but as 2011 Hannity inadvertently explains to 2005 Hannity, the same could be said of any number of regimes, and if the standard for force is simply the subjugation of a despot’s citizens, then the United States has a lot of catching up to do. This doesn’t make either Hannity wrong (nor does it make Obama right), but it does call into question the reliability of his analysis.
Former House Speaker and possible presidential contender Newt Gingrich's reversal is even more blatant:
March 7: The United States doesn’t need anybody’s permission. We don’t need to have NATO, who frankly, won’t bring much to the fight. We don’t need to have the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening. And we don’t have to send troops. All we have to do is suppress his air force, which we could do in minutes.
March 23: I would not have intervened. I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Qaddafi. I think there are a lot of other allies in the region we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces.
The good news is that other conservatives are taking a less knee-jerk approach, instead assessing the conflict based on values, not partisanship:
[T]he relative lack of Tea Party angst over the no-fly zone has been surprising. There is no discussion of Libya happening at Ginni Thomas’ Liberty Central, no statement from Tea Party Patriots or the Tea Party Express.
Quite a few liberal Democrats have come out and criticized the president. There were more Democrats who criticized President George W. Bush during the run-up to Iraq, but there have been enough to generate real heat for the White House. It was Kucinich, rather than a Republican, who first floated the idea that the strikes on Libya might be grounds for impeachment; Newt Gingrich, who mused that Obama could be impeached for failing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, hasn’t gone that far. Half a dozen Republicans who identify with the Tea Party have criticized the Obama administration’s shoot-first-ask-Congress-later approach, but most Republicans haven’t […]
There could be more Tea Party criticism of the Libya strategy if the conflict drags on. On Monday, Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots told me that the group may poll members to determine whether they should take a stance. If CNN’s poll on Libya is right, TPP might find itself taking the pro-Obama, anti-Ron Paul line on Libya. The poll, conducted from March 18 to March 20, found 70 percent of all voters favoring a no-fly zone. Among “Tea Party supporters,” it was 73 percent. Fifty-four percent of all voters favored attacks “directly targeted at Gaddafi’s troops who are fighting the opposition forces in Libya.” That number rose to 58 percent among Tea Partiers.
There are individual Tea Party leaders, like Williams or Rand Paul, who wince at a military intervention undertaken like this. The Tea Party is libertarian in plenty of ways. But if it has one defining characteristic, it’s that it’s nationalist. If there’s a way to remove Qaddafi decades after he aided the Lockerbie bombers, then that’s more important than a debate over the deep thoughts of the founders. In a Saturday interview with Fox News, Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., one of the most popular politicians to win the support of the Tea Party, explained that his problem with the intervention was about grit, not the Constitution.
“Back two or three weeks ago,” said West, “we could have taken care of this situation if we had done the exact same thing that Ronald Reagan did back in the early ’80s to Muammar Gaddafi, when he dropped the bomb in his back yard. Muammar Gaddafi didn’t say a word for the next 30 years.”
In all areas, conservatism demands an allegiance to principle regardless of our affection or disdain for the people and parties involved, and nowhere is that consistency more vital than in matters of war and peace. Heaven knows there’s much to criticize in the way Obama has handled this conflict even beyond his lack of clarity, but conservative critiques won’t do much good without clarity in our own motives.