Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Political Logic of Libyan Military Intervention

A few nights ago, President Obama issued a vague and underwhelming explanation of the U.S. military affair in Libya. Since then our situation in Libya hasn't gotten any clearer. In justifying military action, Obama was heavy on horror-inducing imagery and facts, but failed to clearly articulate a sound argument differentiating the Libyan situation from the dozens of brutal dictatorships scattered around the world. Clearly this particular military action isn't best explained through a logically consistent theory of international conflict. Looking at the conflict through the lens of domestic politics, however, we see that Obama made a shrewd political calculation given the highly uncertain nature of the recent Middle Eastern turmoil.

To establish a bit of context, Obama's response to the previous revolution in Egypt--basically a muddled confusion--turned out very well. But it's easy to imagine scenarios where things didn't turn out as rosy, and Obama looking flat-footed and foolish. With nobody quite sure when (and how) this snowballing revolutionary trend will end, it's entirely likely that some flashpoint will occur in the future where a "do-nothing" policy on the part of the administration will result in serious political fallout. With the 2012 election gearing up, the situation in Libya provided the perfect opportunity for Obama to neutralize his exposure to this political risk.

Think about the following scenarios. If Obama chose not to act, the many revolutions around the world might have resolved themselves without too much trouble (or bloodshed). It would have then been a non-issue for Obama: no political cost, no political benefit (the stable of Republican governors preparing to run against Obama in 2012 don't want to compare foreign policy credentials). If, however, the situations in many of these countries (such as Libya) continued to deteriorate, the lack of U.S. action early on would have been seen as a lack of confidence and foresight. In fact, by 2012 conditions in some countries might be so bad that military action might have been necessary anyway. By waiting so long to act, military intervention would be much less effective and Obama would be viewed as reactionary.

Now consider the flip side where Obama acts now with a limited military intervention (it doesn't really matter where). As before, the many revolutions bubbling in the Muslim world might still have resolved themselves, but now Obama gets to claim credit if that happens--a big political advantage. If things continue to deteriorate (civilian massacres, warfare, etc.), Obama can claim that he did the best he could in trying to use U.S. power to impose regional stability, but that any further action would be imprudent. He can spin a compelling narrative to voters that anything beyond the limited military action already taken would be counter-productive to U.S. interests in light of the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. By acting now to preempt the scenario of increased regional instability, Obama minimizes the potential political fallout and exposes the possibility of a big political win.

In light of the political logic of minor preemptive military action, Libya provides a good target. It's proximity and history with Europe, combined with the kooky vileness of Gaddafi make military intervention an easier sell. While we must wait to see how things ultimately turn out, of this I am sure: under any scenario, Obama now has a strong narrative to sell during the election.

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to say, I appreciated your succinct and illuminating explanation of military involvement. I've just been curious as to what the hell is going on over there.