Monday, August 22, 2011
Gaddafi's defeat will not save Obama's presidency
It looks like Barack Obama has added another scalp to his collection. Colonel Gaddafi could be about to join Osama bin Laden on the list of villains that have fallen under this administration. Obama’s foreign policy reflects his temperament: cool and methodical. He played the long game with both men; gathering intelligence and applying pressure before taking action. The West’s unofficial war against Gaddafi’s regime has almost become banal. But it seems to have worked, and Obama deserves credit for that.
The problem is that he probably won’t get any. Since its inception, there has been no constituency for this war. Obama was forced to intervene in Libya to compensate for his delayed response to the Arab Spring, when his cautious approach to the collapse of Mubarak’s regime was ridiculed as dithering. The Libyan operation had none of the glamour of the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan: TV footage was of groups of Arab men shooting at each other in desert towns, not young Americans kicking ass in combat gear and Ray-Bans. The public were unmoved. Obama’s Gallup approval ratings actually fell after the conflict began. That doesn’t bode well for his re-election because voters ordinarily rally around their President during foreign policy crises. Even Jimmy Carter went up in the polls after American hostages were seized at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979.
Congressional liberals have fiercely opposed the conflict. They were outraged when the President didn’t bother to seek congressional approval for the war after the traditional 60-day limit had expired. That was a mistake, because he probably could have won it and helped weaken the conservative coalition within the Republican caucus (which is what Bill Clinton did when he got Republican Bob Dole’s backing for the bombing of Bosnia in 1995). Ordinarily, Republicans are hawks and the NATO campaign might have peeled away a few of their voters over to the President’s side. But the Republican Party is going through one of its periodic spells of isolationism (which usually coincide with it being out of office). Michele Bachmann was critical of Obama’s intervention from day one. She speculated that 10,000 to 30,000 people might have died in NATO airstrike. Even neoconservative hawks have denounced the campaign because of its lack of vim and vigor. Former UN ambassador John Bolton argued that the President had set himself up for “massive strategic failure” by demanding Gaddafi’s ouster “while restricting military force to the limited objective of protecting civilians.” Doves and hawks hated this war. Only Obama could unite Dennis Kucinich, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Jane Fonda.
Of course, Right and Left speak over the heads of millions of independent voters who might ignore the cost in money and lives of the NATO operation and conclude that Obama gets things done – eventually. Moreover, there is a tiny but influential group of activists who have championed this effort from the beginning and who will hail Obama’s success with fine words. They are the humanitarian internationalists. Antiwar activist Tom Hayden wrote a convincing piece for The Nation in which he identified a new constituency of liberal who, having given up on building socialism at home, now seeks to construct it abroad. Enthusiasm for the Libyan conflict is, he argued, a symptom of the disengagement of America’s liberal elites from their old domestic constituencies – blacks, unionists, the poor. In their approach to Islam and the Middle East, they have supplanted socialist internationalism for globalised feminism. Summarising Hayden’s commentary, one blogger concluded: “Libya is a war of the womb. A product of the romantic minds of women who fantasize about an Arab awakening. It is estrogen-driven paternalism on steroids.”
In the coming days, Obama will be praised fulsomely by the Democratic establishment and the mainstream media. But unlike the assassination of Osama bin Laden, this limited and unexciting war has been largely ignored by the American people. The collapse of this absurd man’s squalid regime is not the vote-winner the President so desperately needs.