Tripping on Libya

 

When I saw the headline that the United Nations had passed a resolution authorizing military intervention in Libya, I immediately dreaded the waves argument that would begin to pour forth from the internet within hours. Whatever action the coalition nations took would likely spark a fresh round of recrimination and discord. But as French, British, and American forces began shooting missiles into the troubled north African nation, something unexpected happened: an issue arrived in the American public square that was too complex to be broken down along partisan fault lines.

Libya is the kind of war liberals support, one with a clear moral imperative, international consensus, and at least the illusion of low-risk engagement. The modern Republican Party has incorporated unquestioning support for military engagement into its very DNA. But the Libya operation came at a moment when the Left is already distraught at our two other open-ended Middle East debacles, and when the Right is loathe to agree with the president even when he adopts their own positions. The worst Obama's conservative critics have been able to say about the operation is that he intervened too slowly, which still puts them on his side. Anti-war liberals are left with the disheartening task of criticizing the leader who has delivered on so many of the domestic issues they hold dear.

Out of the dust of the first missiles, unusual coalitions emerged. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat sounded more like the editors of The Nation, America's most fiery left-wing magazine, when he warned that "'low risk' conflicts often turn out to be anything but." (For its part, The Nation acknowledged that there are "strong arguments" for the intervention even as the magazine came out against it.) The conservative Weekly Standard and the neo-liberal New Republic ended up on the same side. The usually trigger-happy right wing of the Republican Party is as vehemently opposed as the left-wingers calling for Obama's impeachment. Neither Rush Limbaugh nor Glenn Beck immediately had a position on the intervention.

Most of the time, political warfare breaks out before a debate can even begin, making serious discussion of an issue almost impossible. Positions become caricatures before they even enter the arena. But when it comes to invading Muslim nations, apparently everyone but the editors of The Weekly Standard have learned a lesson. Whether or not they will admit it, most have been chastened by the way the ostensibly quick, painless, and just wars we were told to expect in Iraq and Afghanistan turned into decades-long, resource-guzzling, morally compromising tragedies. Those engagements taught us the futility of prognostication and the murkiness of foresight. The endorsements of the Libya war have come with much more reticence and skepticism; a few who supported our adventure in Iraq are determined not to make the mistake again.