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In Libya, Obama Did The Right Thing

Over the past few days, President Obama has surprised us. For weeks, he seemed committed to avoiding military action against Libya—even though Libyans were imploring America and the West to come to their aid. But at the very last minute, when Muammar Qaddafi seemed to be only days and perhaps hours away from retaking the remainder of his country by force, Obama decided to act. It was a decision we wish he would have arrived at weeks ago. But it was the right decision. And Obama deserves credit for having made it.

To understand why Obama’s decision was not only correct but really the only decent one that was available to him, it is necessary to contemplate what would be taking place in Libya right now if we had not intervened. Late last week, Qaddafi announced that his forces, having reestablished control over most of the country, were closing in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, and issued his now infamous warning to those who refused to give up. “We are coming tonight,” he said. “We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.” Had we not intervened to cripple his forces, it seems likely that, by now, Qaddafi would be in Benghazi and, undoubtedly, carrying out bloody reprisals against his opponents. The rebellion, moreover, would effectively be over, and any hopes of freedom that the Libyan people had been entertaining would be dead, at least in the near term.

Skeptics of the intervention (including TNR contributing editor Michael Walzer, whose thoughtful analysis can be found here) have argued that one of the mission’s flaws is that its goals are woefully unclear. Are we trying to topple Qaddafi? Are we merely trying to create a safe-haven for rebels in the east? These are fair questions, but it seems to us that the most immediate goals of the mission were quite clear: first, to prevent a slaughter in Benghazi, a slaughter that Qaddafi himself had promised was only hours away; and second, to tip the balance of power in the rebellion away from Qaddafi, so that his forces were unable to retake any more of the country, thus extinguishing the resistance for good. On these terms, the intervention has already been a success.

As for what comes next: It is difficult to say whether Western airpower can tip the balance of power toward the rebels so dramatically that they will be able to topple Qaddafi. We certainly hope so. But even if it does not, an intervention that at least allows the rebels to maintain a free zone in Libya will certainly be a better outcome than the alternative—a Libya reunited under Qaddafi’s iron control.

In making this argument we are mindful of the lessons of Iraq. We supported that war, which has exacted an enormous human cost on Iraqis and Americans alike, and we long ago came to the conclusion that our support was a grave mistake. But we are also mindful of recent instances where Western power has been necessary to head off mass killing and to help oppressed people achieve their liberation. In some of these instances—Bosnia, Kosovo—we acted, and the outcomes have been generally positive. In other instances—Rwanda, Darfur—we did not act, and the results were hundreds of thousands of dead. The point is that Iraq alone cannot be used as a basis for determining the morality or predicting the efficacy of any given intervention.

Many skeptics have also pointed to the events unfolding in Bahrain, where a Sunni minority government allied with the United States has (with the help of another U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia) violently suppressed an uprising by the Shia majority. Isn’t Obama a hypocrite, many liberals have asked, for intervening to stop an autocrat in Libya but not in Bahrain? It is a legitimate point. Bahrain is said to be a difficult case for American policymakers because a revolution by the Shia majority would be a major victory for Iran. And it is true that anything which advances the interests of a brutal Iranian government in the Middle East must be seen as a setback to the cause of liberal democracy.

At the same time, the events of the last few months show that aligning oneself with autocrats is never a wise course. We spent decades paralyzed with fear about what the fall of Mubarak would mean for our strategic interests. And yet, looking back, would we not have been better off cutting Mubarak loose a generation ago, and siding forthrightly with the Egyptian people? By helping to postpone the arrival of democracy, we did not fortify our long-term strategic position one bit.

We must now think about Bahrain (and Saudi Arabia and our other repressive clients in the region) in the same terms. If our backing allows the Al Khalifa family to remain in power for a few more years, and in the process causes the Bahraini people to conclude that the United States is fundamentally hypocritical, we will in fact be helping Iran. The message of the Obama administration to the Al Khalifas and to Saudi Arabia’s rulers must now be unequivocal: You cannot rule forever, and you must begin the process of opening up your societies and paving the way for liberal democracy.

Should we have intervened diplomatically to stop the repression in Bahrain? Absolutely. But for those offering our failure in Bahrain as a reason not to intervene in Libya, here is a simple question: Would our failure in Bahrain have been in any way ameliorated by allowing Qaddafi to move into Benghazi late last week? We think the answer is a clear no.

Of course, no one knows what will happen from here forward. But this much we do know: Four days ago, a cruel dictator appeared to be on the verge of initiating a bloodbath in one of the last free zones of his country. Today, the free zone he was threatening to attack remains free. And his ability to wage war against a justified rebellion seems to have been at least somewhat compromised. Without Western intervention—that is, without Obama’s decision to finally do the right thing—there is little doubt that the situation would have been worse.

By: The Editors, The New Republic, March 20, 2011.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | Democracy, Dictators, Foreign Policy, Libya, Middle East, Military Intervention, Muslims, No Fly Zones, Politics, President Obama, Qaddafi | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Misguided Criticism: Obama Doesn’t Need To ‘Take The Lead’ In Libya

There’s been a lot of well-thought-out criticism of the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in Libya’s civil war with no clear objective, plan of exit or even comprehensive knowledge of the rebel forces. But one line of criticism, which is coming almost exclusively from the right, is thoroughly unpersuasive: The notion that America has to be seen as “taking the lead,” as South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham put it on Sunday:

“I am very worried we are taking a back seat rather than a leadership role,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “Isolate, strangle and replace this man. That should be our goal.”

According to Joint Chiefs Staff Director Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, the U.S. is running the operations focused on Libya, although Gortney emphasized during a Pentagon briefing yesterday that the U.S. is “working diligently to affect a smooth transition to a coalition command structure in the next few days.” The confusion seems to stem from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attempted to stress the multilateral nature of the intervention by stating: “We did not lead this.”

Most of the arguments for why the U.S. should be seen as “taking the lead” seem to hinge on little more than the fact that so doing would be emotionally satisfying to those who have been agitating for intervention in Libya since hostilities began. On the other hand, Ross Douthat takes a different tack,arguing that the U.S. multilateral approach facilitates a “caution that shades into tactical incompetence.” But since the U.S. is still extricating itself from President George W. Bush’s unilateral invasion of Iraq, which didn’t exactly amount to “tactical competence,” this too is less than persuasive.

There are several reasons why the U.S. shouldn’t be seen as taking the lead. For one thing, the U.S. is already occupied with the aftermath of one war in Iraq and attempting to bring a more than decade-long operation in Afghanistan to its conclusion. The U.S. does not have unlimited military resources, and other countries that demanded intervention should take responsibility and offer contributions rather than free-riding off of the United States. The statements from the Arab League — which asked for intervention but then wavered when operations started — suggest that there really is a short shelf-life for the legitimacy for this operation in the Arab world, even though intervention initially had global support. If the operation goes badly, or takes far longer than advertised, it’s frankly in the U.S. interest not to be seen as having led the attack on a third Muslim country.

While the case for the international community attempting to prevent Libyan Dictator Moammar Gaddafi from massacring his own people is understandable, there are still reasons for skepticism that this intervention won’t actually compound the problem. But to the extent that the U.S. has decided to intervene in Libya, we should be relieved that the administration has decided to avoid shouldering the entire burden by itself. And we can only hope it actually turns out that way, and the U.S. isn’t left holding the bag.

By: Adam Serwer, The Washington Post, March 21, 2011

March 21, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, Dictators, Foreign Policy, Ideologues, Libya, National Security, No Fly Zones, Obama, Politics, Qaddafi | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Republican War On Elizabeth Warren

Last week, at a House hearing on financial institutions and consumer credit, Republicans lined up to grill and attack Elizabeth Warren, the law professor and bankruptcy expert who is in charge of setting up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Ostensibly, they believed that Ms. Warren had overstepped her legal authority by helping state attorneys general put together a proposed settlement with mortgage servicers, which are charged with a number of abuses.

But the accusations made no sense. Since when is it illegal for a federal official to talk with state officials, giving them the benefit of her expertise? Anyway, everyone knew that the real purpose of the attack on Ms. Warren was to ensure that neither she nor anyone with similar views ends up actually protecting consumers.

And Republicans were clearly also hoping that if they threw enough mud, some of it would stick. For people like Ms. Warren — people who warned that we were heading for a debt crisis before it happened — threaten, by their very existence, attempts by conservatives to sustain their antiregulation dogma. Such people must therefore be demonized, using whatever tools are at hand.

Let me expand on that for a moment. When the 2008 financial crisis struck, many observers — myself included — thought that it would force opponents of financial regulation to rethink their position. After all, conservatives hailed the debt boom of the Bush years as a triumph of free-market finance right up to the moment it turned into a disastrous bust.

But we underestimated the speed and determination with which opponents of regulation would rewrite history. Almost instantly, that free-market boom was retroactively reinterpreted; it became a disaster brought on by, you guessed it, excessive government intervention.

There remained, however, the inconvenient fact that some of those calling for stronger regulation have a track record that gives them a lot of credibility. And few have as much credibility as Ms. Warren.

Household debt doubled as a share of personal income over the 30 years preceding the crisis, and these days high levels of debt are widely seen as a major barrier to recovery. But only a handful of people appreciated the dangers posed by rising debt as the rise was happening. And Ms. Warren was among the foresighted few. More than a decade ago, when politicians of both parties were celebrating the wonders of modern banking and widening access to consumer credit, she was already warning that high debt levels could bring widespread financial disaster in the face of an economic downturn.

Later, she took the lead in pushing for consumer protection as an integral part of financial reform, arguing that many debt problems were created when lenders pushed borrowers into taking on obligations they didn’t understand. And she was right. As the late Edward Gramlich of the Federal Reserve — another unheeded expert, who tried in vain to get Alan Greenspan to rein in predatory lending — asked in 2007, “Why are the most risky loan products sold to the least sophisticated borrowers?” And he continued, “The question answers itself — the least sophisticated borrowers are probably duped into taking these products.”

Given Ms. Warren’s prescience and her role in shaping financial reform legislation — not to mention her effective performance running the Congressional panel exercising oversight over federal financial bailouts — it was only natural that she be appointed to get the new consumer protection agency up and running. And it’s hard to think of anyone better qualified to head the agency once it goes into action.

The fact that she’s so well qualified is, of course, the reason she’s being attacked so fiercely. Nothing could be worse, from the point of view of bankers and the politicians who serve them, than to have consumers protected by someone who knows what she’s doing and has the personal credibility to stand up to pressure.

The interesting question now is whether the Obama administration will see the war on Elizabeth Warren for what it is: a second chance to change public perceptions.

In retrospect, the financial crisis of 2008 was a missed opportunity. Yes, the White House succeeded in passing significant new financial regulation. But for whatever reason, it failed to change the terms of debate: bankers and the disaster they wrought have faded from view, and Republicans are back to denouncing the evils of regulation as if the crisis never happened.

By the sheer craziness of their attacks on Ms. Warren, however, Republicans are offering the administration a perfect opportunity to revive the debate over financial reform, not to mention highlighting exactly who’s really in Wall Street’s pocket these days. And that’s an opportunity the White House should welcome.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 20, 2011

March 21, 2011 Posted by | Consumer Credit, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Consumers, Debt Crisis, Financial Institutions, Financial Reform, Regulations | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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