Agreeing to disagree, in part, with Andrew Sullivan

Is it America's job to save them all?

I don’t agree with Andrew Sullivan on Libya. I was among those who was initially skeptical of the idea of intervening there (particularly given some of the characters egging it on), but who eventually came around to the belief that whatever the flaws in the argument for using military force to stop Muommar Qaddafi (to protect Europe’s oil supply?) a basic sense of human decency, and a desire to stop that madman from murdering his own people compelled us to act, so long as the U.S. didn’t bear the burden alone.

Andrew Sullivan disagrees, and he makes one of the most compelling arguments against not just intervention here, but the fundamental notion that America, unique in the world, must act when others do not.

As opposed to the screeching, reflexive Obama-haters on the far left and far right (including one whom Sullivan quotes in his first paragraph) Sullivan makes his arguments thoughtfully, forcefully, and with an elegance that makes his a must-read column, wherever he happens to be writing. A clip after the jump.

Here’s the clip, from the part of the essay about which I entirely agree with Sullivan:

If America’s ideals are universal, they cannot be reduced to the ownership of one country. And that country’s actual history – as opposed to Bachmannite mythology – is as flawed as many others. Why, after all, did America need a Second Founding under Lincoln – almost a century after it was born? Which other advanced country remained so devoted to slavery until the late nineteenth century? Which other one subsequently replaced slavery with a form of grinding apartheid for another century? Besides, much of the thought that gave us the American constitution can be traced back to European thinkers, whether in Locke or Montesquieu or the Enlightenment in general. Seeing America as the sole pioneer of human freedom is to erase Britain’s unique history, without which America would not exist. It is to erase the revolutionary ideas of the French republics. It’s historically false.

This I think is true. American exceptionalism is in many ways a need fulfillment for Americans of the right, whose entire worldview is based upon the God-ordained specialness of the United States. It’s for that reason that they are so defensive about the slightest critiques, even of true American history (slavery, Jim Crow, the extermination of the native American tribes, etc., etc., etc.) It’s why the tea party/John Birch crowd wants to go back to a time when American history was so many song books, not much cold, hard truth. But that’s been true in many societies, particularly as they become more authoritarian (and ours is.)

Where I disagree with some on the left often seem to be coming from is that America is, far from being just one among many special countries, but no more special to us than those countries are to their citizens (something President Obama has said himself) almost always in the wrong when we use any measure of force. A healthy skepticism of the military is one thing. But conflating any military action at all with Iraq and Vietnam is quite another.

The far left seems to yearn for a world of chaos and disorder, where the president has no power, the government has no secrets, and there is almost no law. And in the particular case of President Obama, I often find the liberal critiques to be shrill, ignorant of the realities of governing, and often bordering on tantrums of hysteria.

The difference between the far left and the far right, of course, is that their hysteria is at least grounded in a deep desire to see the country do good, and do right by people – as opposed to the right, for whom only conquest and lucre seems to fill the psychological void.

Sullivan doesn’t go there, but his fundamental critique of Libya, in my opinion, is that it represents a failure on the part of Barack Obama to break with idea that militarism and American exceptionalism are intertwined. Another clip:

The glib hubris of Libya is a sign that the change we hoped for really has morphed into the wet military dreams of neoconservatism and the utopian notion of the US as the rescuer of all those subjected to tyranny we believe we can opportunistically save – for a few days or weeks. What I see here is far from exceptional. It is the routine pattern of the rise and fall of all republics that become empires. It is what happened to Rome and Spain and Britain: Success, over-reach, hubris, bankruptcy and decline. And the withering of the sinews of a republic’s body – as in the supine, divided, incompetent Congress, and a court so deferent to the emperor’s unrestricted power.

In this, especially with this Libya clusterfuck, Obama reverted to embracing the forces he was elected to resist and restrain. One appreciates the difficulty of this; and I still hope for success – beause I see no sane alternative to Obama anywhere and no one can hope that the monster Qaddafi stays in power. But the Libya decision was a deep break with the essential argument for the Obama presidency – and tha break is one that the Obamaites seemed not to grasp in their insular, secret and arrogant decision-making process. I fear it has already profoundly weakened the president’s credibility and strength – and will become as big a burden to him as Iraq was to Bush.

What Sullivan seems to gloss over here, is the moral consequence of doing nothing. This is no 2003, when Saddam Hussein was a bad guy not presently engaged in acts of public violence against his people. This is a case where the leader of a country has vowed to turn rebel strongholds into “rivers of blood.” Had the world done nothing, Libya would have presented the same pandemic shame to the West that Darfur, and the Congo, and the Palestinian territories, and Cote d’Ivoire, and on and on do today. The West does indeed carry a special obligation to the nations it once subdued and exploited. We, and even moreso Europe, in large part destroyed the third world. And when its people call upon us for aid, we have a moral obligation, I think, to listen.

The Arab spring succeeded in Egypt and Tunisia largely because the West did not meddle. But in the case of Libya, the rebels begged for the help of outsiders, stipulating that they still hoped to do the hard work of overthrowing their dictator on their own. It is indeed still a dilemma. We don’t want another Bay of Pigs. But we don’t want another Rwanda, either.

I respect President Obama’s deliberate process here, and believe he did not rush headlong into Africa, guns blazing, neocon style. And I also believe that had we not acted, some of the same voices screaming at Obama for going in, would be pounding him into salt for allowing so many people to die. I don’t think Sullivan (a thoughtful conservative if there ever was one) would be among them. But I would be intrigued to hear what he thinks the consequences of that inaction might have been.

Anyway, here’s the link to the rest of Sullivan’s essay. Agree or disagree (and he and I completely part ways on the subject of Bradley Manning, since sadly, even the brilliant Mr. Sullivan has scooped up the FDL/Greenwald mythology of that case) it’s worth reading.

Bonus: here’s another great essay, taking a differing view, from Steve Benen.

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5 Responses to Agreeing to disagree, in part, with Andrew Sullivan

  1. now that’s a great piece.

  2. Rupert says:

    Disagreeing with Andrew in part is pretty normal; consistency is not his forte; after being super hawk on Iraq, and regretting it later, he’s still finding his way on matters of aggression. But he’s someone I at least browse every day. (J. Reid’s on the list too.) Libya may not turn out well, but does that make it a mistake?

  3. MY GAWD – ED SCHULTZ was shouting down anyone with doubts – solidarity & peace Rick@AveryVoice​.com

  4. MY GAWD – ED SCHULTZ was shouting down anyone with doubts – solidarity & peace Rick@AveryVoice.com

  5. Very thoughtful piece. I’ll cop to being one of those lefties who reflexively oppose the use of force. However, I find it a huge relief to have a guy like Obama at the helm. Even if he’s wrong about Libya, I believe his motivations won’t be as venal and corrupt as BushCo’s. To equate the two as Sully does is a mistake, I think.

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