Libya: Embracing Our Limits

by Michael Sean Winters

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This morning’s New York Times as an essay by Ross Douthat comparing the foreign policy visions of two Republican rising stars, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Douthat uses their competing concerns about Libya – Rubio thinks we should be striking harder and Paul thinks we should not be involved at all – to highlight the struggle between the neo-conservative wing of the GOP with its libertarian competition.

During the George W. Bush years, there was virtually complete consensus within the ranks of the GOP. Bush used the fear and anger resulting from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to abandon his campaign call for a “humbler” foreign policy and to embrace the neo-conservative vision of an armed and active America, re-making the world in America’s image. I had almost written “making the world safe for democracy.” Indeed, there was something of Wilsonian idealism in the neo-conservative vision.

Wilson’s ideals, of course, came a cropper when the United States Senate failed to ratify the League of Nations Treaty and, subsequently, when the League of Nations proved impotent in the face of fascist aggression, first in Ethiopia after Mussolini attacked that country and, subsequently, in the face of German re-armament. Bush’s vision went belly up after an armed and tenacious insurgence in Iraq materialized, mocking his “Mission Accomplished” claim. More American soldiers, and Iraqi civilians, died after that claim then before it. And, after almost ten years of fighting in Afghanistan, Americans are tiring of that fight too.

It has been well said that there is nothing so immoral as the right thing done for the wrong reasons. Rand Paul’s crimped version of America’s role in the world can well be accused of suffering from this variety of immorality. Lately, as Douthat points out, Sen. Paul’s principal articulated reason for opposing American intervention in Libya is that “we can’t afford it.” Of course, America is a wealthy nation that can, in fact, afford to send some drones into Libya financially and only a myopic concern with government expenditures would fail to acknowledge that fact.

Arguably, however, there is a deeper kind of poverty that should stay America’s willingness to engage in foreign military actions, a recognition that our resources may not be limited but our moral imagination can be. This was the difficulty in Iraq. Rumsfeld and Cheney and Co. could not conceive that U.S. troops would be seen as invaders. We were supposed to be greeted as liberators, remember? They did not understand that a people unschooled in classic liberalism and its concern for individual freedom would view foreigners, even foreigners with the best of intentions, as invaders. No human heart warms to its chains, but the chains of one’s own people are always preferable to enslavement by others. And, in a largely tribal society like Iraq, such an animus to foreigners was as predictable as the rising of the sun.

Libya seems to be a different case, and here it is Rubio’s vision that needs to acknowledge its limits. The reason we cannot and should not simply “do more” is because we cannot and should not go beyond aiding the Libyan opposition in their effort to reclaim their country from Qaddafi’s tyranny. They must take the lead. They must be seen to be leading the effort to expel Qaddafi. The second the conflict is seen as the West versus Muslims, we lose and the Libyan opposition loses.

It is ironic, however, to see the cause of limits being championed by Sen. Paul who on domestic matters seems quite willing to indulge the fantasy, so common in our culture, that if only individual Americans were “freed” from government interference, they could become whoever they want and rise to heights of unimagined personal greatness. This myth runs deep. You hear it a lot this time of year in commencement speeches where graduates are told that, if they work hard, they can achieve anything they want in life. Shows like “American Idol” hold out the promise of stardom. Everyone has become a grandson of Horatio Alger. But, it is not true. Some people are more talented than others. Some people are luckier than others. And, besides, many such “dreams,” of fame or fortune, are illusory in any event. We raise our children to want better things not to lead better lives.

Contra Sen. Rubio, the reason to move cautiously in Libya is because the situation demands caution. Contra Sen. Paul, the reason to be involved in Libya is because an immense amount of human suffering has been avoided with relatively little effort on our part. Those who see the Libyan situation as a reason to rekindle the neo-con fires, like those who see the Libyan intervention as a new reason to embrace isolationism, are both wrong. We should do what we can. We should not expect to remake the world. We should acknowledge our limits, not because they obliterate our dreams, but because facts are better than dreams.

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