Professor of Literature at Yale
One of Barack Obama’s first acts as president was to say that Guantanamo must go. It did not go. Soon after, he said that the Israeli settlements must go. They expanded. Obama made his peace in the end with Guantanamo and the Israeli settlements. He restarted the military tribunals at Guantanamo — a feature of the Bush-Cheney constitution which he once had explicitly deplored — and recently went out of his way to defend the Guantanamo-like abuse (compulsory nakedness and sleep deprivation) inflicted on an American prisoner, Bradley Manning, in the Marine Corps brig at Quantico. One had come to think of “X must go” assertions by Obama as speculative prefaces to a non-existent work. His words, in his mind, are actions. When he speaks them once or twice, he has done what he was put here to do. If the existing powers defy his wishes, he embraces the powers and continues on his way.
The Egyptian protest of January and February saw a new siege of wishful commandments and reversals by the president. He told Mubarak to go. Then he told him to stay a while. Mubarak said he would stay, but after a time, he went; and in the mind of Obama, it appears, there was a relation of cause and effect between his initial request and the final result. He was consequently emboldened.
He said that Muammar Gaddafi must go. Gaddafi stayed. When the protest that gathered against Gaddafi would not disperse, the dictator shot at the protesters; and when some of them turned to armed rebellion, he went to war against the rebels. Obama for his part seemed ready to retire from an unpromising scene. His dryly prudent secretary of defense encouraged him to do so.
Then other forces intervened. We were told the forces were “the women around the president” — Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Hillary Clinton. These officials admired what they thought the U.S. had done in Kosovo, and they felt remorse about what the U.S. failed to do in Rwanda. President Obama was brought to think that three members of his “team of rivals,” including a member of his cabinet, ought to prevail against another member of his cabinet whose cautious advice he was tempted to follow. So, it is said, the president followed the women and obeyed a principle higher than prudence, a principle that he named, in his belated speech of explanation on March 28, “the conscience of the world.”
He approved the enforcement of a no-fly zone, which has turned out to mean, as Robert Gates said it would, an air war backing the rebels against the government of Libya.
This, to repeat, was a fable that people were telling and were getting ready to retell. This morning it was turned upside down by a New York Times story by Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt.
We had thought that, at best, President Obama knew more than we knew; he had measured the likely costs and decided that, though many innocent people would be killed along with the servants of tyranny, he was acting for the sake of the goals he avowed. At worst, we may have thought that he wanted, for partly selfish reasons, to attach his fame to a coming triumph of freedom, and that he was willing to pay a price in bloodshed so long as he could also believe he was saving lives.
The truth is far different. Not only is it the case that many in the rebel party fought to kill Americans in Iraq; that Al Qaeda has backed the rebellion; and that even the supreme commander of NATO forces, Admiral Stavridis, has lately been disturbed by “flickers” of an Al Qaeda force within the rebellion.
Those reports alone were sufficiently alarming, and they were confirmed by an omission in Monday’s speech, when the president declined to say a word about the identity of the rebel army to which he gave his support. Even then, one might have thought as well-behaved people are taught to think: what does any of us really know? But the Mazzetti-Schmitt story shows beyond any doubt that the Libya adventure from the start was a toxic brew; a commitment to be understood not in the light of the Egyptian protest but of the American activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.
According to Mazzetti and Schmitt, the CIA and its British equivalent MI6 scoured Libya as far back as 2003, initially in the effort to persuade Muammar Gaddafi to give up his nuclear weapons program. When that effort succeeded, the intelligence operatives went away, or so Mazzetti and Schmitt suggest. When the February protests began and a crackdown followed, the CIA and MI6 went back into Libya and picked up the old connections. What are they doing now on the ground? Arranging targets for air strikes with the help of U-2 spy planes and a Global Hawk drone. Also learning of and creating links between the rebel groups to facilitate enhanced advisory work at a later date. In short, doing everything but fight, it would seem; but Mazzetti and Schmitt add that “dozens” of British special forces accompany the operatives from the CIA and MI6. What do special forces do?
The meaning of the Times report can be fully grasped only if one augments its findings with a March 26 McClatchy story by Chris Adams.
Adams sketches the career of the former chief military officer of Colonel Gaddafi’s army, Khalifa Hifter, who was recently appointed to lead the rebel army. (The article does not say who appointed him.) The ascent of Hifter is a study in itself. After leading Gaddafi’s disastrous war against Chad in the late 1980s, Adams reports, General Hifter (also known as Haftar, Hefter, and Huftur) retired to “suburban Virginia,” where he has lived for much of the last two decades. It has been reported elsewhere that the suburb in question is Vienna, Virginia: five minutes from CIA headquarters at Langley.
However the facts are to be explained, this close associate of an African dictator whom American officials have long regarded as a dangerous madman somehow obtained easy entrance to the U.S. And his safe return to Libya was facilitated at a remarkably opportune moment.
It seems then that a long train of earlier commitments in Libya was set in motion as soon as the Egyptian uprising began. “Kinetic military action” is the term of art for a policy whose content perhaps no single person is in full possession of.
Yet one thing is clear, thanks to Mazzetti and Schmitt. “Several weeks ago, President Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the CIA to provide arms and other support to Libyan rebels.” It is said that the arms have not yet been sent; but the timing is interesting. The order was signed just about the moment that President Obama was lauding the triumph of non-violence in Egypt. The Times reporters wisely let the serial flat reiterations of “no comment” from leading officials speak for themselves.
The upshot is this. An event that we Americans were led to believe was an autonomous rising on the model of Egypt turns out to have been deeply compromised from the start, and compromised by American meddling. And the president himself, far from having been balked in mid-decision because he is a man of skeptical and hesitant mind, took a long time to decide because he was face to face with a moment such as John Kennedy recognized at the brink of the Bay of Pigs invasion, whose 50th anniversary the U.S. will mark on April 17. After three days of ill-fated support for the anti-Castro rebels, President Kennedy drew back from that disaster. Eventually, he made a public apology to the country.
All the external parties are in Libya for different reasons. Things could not have gotten this far without the CIA. But the president was also heeding pressure from Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron; and what those European leaders wanted was an assured supply of oil for Europe. Italy, meanwhile, is fearful of an influx of refugees. All these things President Obama knew, but he was careful to mention none when he spoke to the nation on Monday. He opened and closed with a salute to American troops. He uttered — in a truculent manner that was new to him — a stream of wishful words about American support for freedom everywhere.
His Nobel Prize speech in December 2009 had foreshadowed the declarations on Monday:
The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future.
Wishful commandments need a fantasy-structure to support them, a history that omits words like Vietnam, Chile, El Salvador, East Timor. This was remarked at the time by observers of Obama in Oslo. The neoliberal and neoconservative strategists for their part admired that earlier speech just as now they admire Obama’s kinetic military action in Libya.
Here is the parallel passage of abridged history from the speech of explanation on Monday:
For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom. Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.
The doctrine may sound harmless and saccharine. It is, in fact, more anarchic in its implications than the Bush doctrine of 2002, which reserved the right to respond to any physical threat even while the threat was forming. Obama goes a big step further. He reserves the right to respond to spiritual threats and not just physical ones — threats to our “values” as well as our “interests” — and to do so at any time and in any place where he judges our values to be “at stake.” Where entities are invoked as resistant to empirical measure as values, the ordinary rules of evidence no longer even have to be flouted by forgery. Rules of evidence simply do not apply here. Our values are what we say they are. If we think they are threatened, we have a warrant to go to war.
Robert Gates’s opposition to any U.S. involvement in Libya always made obvious sense. Compared to Obama, Gates is a strict interpreter of interests as distinct from values; concerned with “vital interests” only, not the second cousins twice removed of a neighbor of a vital interest. The sense of Gates is that we can only fight a few wars at once. He has worked to cut budgets as secretary of defense; no one is in a better position to point out the literal cost of another war. Gates’s opposition to the Libya adventure, however, now makes a different kind of sense. Before he returned from Texas A&M to serve as George W. Bush’s second secretary of defense, Gates had been deputy director of the CIA under William Casey. He held the office for three years, starting in April 1986, but his first nomination to serve as director of the CIA was sunk by his association with the Iran-Contra scandal. Gates, if anyone, knows a bungled CIA operation when he sees one.
What then of “the president’s women,” who are said to have overcome Obama’s reservations and convinced him to authorize the no-fly policy? As Gates made clear and as Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Hillary Clinton surely knew from his testimony if from no other source, a no-fly zone all along was a euphemistic cover for air war against the government of Libya. Did Power and Rice know the extent of CIA and MI6 involvement in the rebellion? The question should be asked of them. And did Hillary Clinton know? One would have thought she must; but one can’t help remembering another secretary of state, Colin Powell, who suspected but didn’t know the dingy quality of the evidence on which he based his argument to the UN General Assembly for the bombing and invasion of Iraq.
Similar questions arise about some other persons who, by the manner of their cheering for Obama’s undeclared limited war, have offered a retroactive justification for any kind of war, limited or unlimited, open or secret. To this category belong opinion-makers like William Kristol and Robert Kagan, who are well connected in the national security establishment; and the architect of the Iraq war, Paul Wolfowitz, who as a guest on This Week on March 20 said the U.S. should support the rebels even if we don’t know who they are. Wolfowitz could not have meant what he seemed to be saying. It follows that he must have known and meant something he preferred not to say.
An odd point about the Times story is that it does not run as the lead; also, it is peculiarly foreshortened — a big story on a small-story diet. This may suggest that clandestine support of the Libyan rebellion was almost an open secret. Thomas Friedman, the journalist whom President Obama has done most to cultivate, ended his column yesterday with the weird sentence: “Dear Lord, please make President Obama lucky!” This was a mode of prayer more plaintive and jittery than the context gave a motive for.
Friedman’s column also contained a string of excited sentences bursting with the pride of a secret knowledge: “Welcome to the Middle East of 2011!! You want the truth about it? You can’t handle the truth.” Even in a writer as vain and slapdash as Friedman, the contempt for democratic discussion in such a passage is astounding; yet it may give a clue to the tenor of his sessions with Obama. One recalls that another influential Times reporter, James Reston, obeyed a request of the White House and toned down the paper’s disclosure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. When Friedman strutted for his readers, “You can’t handle the truth,” did he know the Times had decided not to repeat the mistake, and that in the next 24 hours Obama’s need of luck would greatly increase?
The American public anyway owes a debt to Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt. By their story, an entire regime of dissimulation has been exposed. President Obama, who had traveled far already from his origins when he reinstituted military tribunals and defended the treatment of Bradley Manning, is now seen to have cast his lot with a long history of secret wars and overthrows and kinetic military operations extending back to Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Vietnam in 1963, and Nicaragua in 1984.
Many things President Obama said on Monday were wishful. The affirmation that NATO “has taken command” was wishful. So, too, was the picture of the United States “for generations” as a unique force for justice and courageous sacrifice, in a world otherwise populated by the tyrannous, the craven, the selfish, and the weak. Many other things Obama said were half true: the suggestion for example that the consideration at the front of his mind when he gave his speech was the safety of American jets and American ships far beyond the reach of Libyan gunnery. But we have now, in this baffling administration, passed out of the twilight of ambiguity. We have entered the land of lies. It is a region where many comments add up to no comment, and where every partial truth must be parsed for legalistic reservations folded into fugitive turns of grammar.
For now, the president is committed to two propositions. Muammar Gaddafi must go. And — as if this went hand in hand with the first — major involvement by the U.S. in Libya will last for days not weeks. He has also promised there will be no “boots on the ground”. (Or does this, too, compass a mental reservation? Does it mean to exclude only official U.S. armed forces boots?)
Delusions of grandeur, which have always been the lower layer of President Obama’s wishful commandments, were made more perilous in this case by delusions of convenience. The president likes things clean. But there is nothing clean about what we are doing in Libya. The fact that President Obama, several weeks ago, signed a secret finding to authorize the CIA shipment of arms to the rebels in Libya, may with profit be compared to two passages from a short speech about Libya that he delivered on February 23:
The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous and it is unacceptable. So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya. These actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop. . . .So let me be clear. The change that is taking place across the region is being driven by the people of the region. This change doesn’t represent the work of the United States or any foreign power.
Obama made those assertions five weeks ago. He confirmed them by implication on Monday. The words were either false when spoken, or else so misleading as to evade falsehood by a hair’s-breadth equivocation. The appeal against armed violence, by the leader of a superpower who either has just approved or is about to approve the shipment of arms to a rebel force in a civil war, fits the common idea of mendacity. The affirmation that the U.S. and other foreign powers had no hand in the rebellion — to judge by the “several weeks” of CIA activity described by Mazzetti and Schmitt — was plainly false or about to be falsified. Anyone in America or Europe who did not guess these things earlier is in a position to know them now.