Tonight’s debate will focus on foreign policy. Let’s face it: Barrack Obama has an unbelievably strong foreign-policy record. His handling of the Libyan civil war should be heralded as the exemplary post Cold War, great power success story — the pinnacle of pragmatism, discipline, independent judgment, and execution. Obama deserves to crush this debate, but I’m not convinced he will. Obama’s opponents have owned the Libyan narrative since the headline-grabbing attack of the U.S. embassy. Because of that, we aren’t talking about how Barrack Obama, with one-hundredth the budget of the Iraq War, oversaw the transition of a former terrorist principal state into a democratic, America-friendly ally. No, we’re not talking about that.
We’re talking about whether Obama said “terror.”
The Arab Spring began with the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia in December of 2010. His death sparked the waves of protests that we saw spread to Syria, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and others. A movement that was destined to disappoint in some ways was, nevertheless, one of the most inspiring times of my life.
Democracy protests are nothing new, but what happened in North Africa and the Middle East simply had no precedent. The scale, the mobility, the media access, the recent history — everything was new. Obama had to navigate all of this with no play book or set of rules.
In addition, foreign policy makers are always fighting two battles — the current one and the one that just ended. Obama’s conflict was not just with Gaddafi, but with two administrations’ worth of misrepresentations regarding the WMD capabilities and intentions of Saddam Hussein. The goodwill and trust built with the Islamic world after George H.W. Bush saved Kuwait and after Bill Clinton intervened in the Balkans and nearly completed an Arab-Israeli peace deal had all but completely eroded. The foreign policy of George W. Bush convinced many people, including myself, that furthering one’s national interests is extraordinarily difficult when unpopular.
Therefore, every decision was delicate. Every decision was complex. Every mistake would be exaggerated. And every decision had to be perfect.
Libya’s first anti-government protest occurred on February 15, 2011. Soon after, rebels had taken over the Eastern city of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. Almost immediately, President Obama was being pressured to engage Libya militarily. When he didn’t take the bait, the usual cast performed their “appeasement,” “apology tour,” and “Democratic weakness” bits.
Obama waited one month. In my opinion, this was the difference in the war. By waiting, he got two things that seem incredible today. First, he got a nearly-universal approval by the Arab League for a no-fly zone. Then, he strolled into the UN and got Security Council Resolution 1973 for, not only a no-fly zone, but the queen mother of them all — authorization for “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. I think it’s uncontroversial that this was an unlikely happening, but why was it so important?
General Sun Tzu stated in his timeless work, The Art of War: “A victorious army first obtains the conditions for victory, then goes to battle. The defeated army first goes to battle, then seeks the conditions for victory.” Every conflict with the United States is asymmetric — our military budget is bigger than the next ten or so countries combined, and no one of any size fights us anymore. So our undersized enemies will always fight us with asymmetric methods. And chief among them? You guessed it, popular opinion. Our enemies’ success has depended almost entirely on their ability to manipulate the image of the United States as an imperialist overlord.
Obama knew this. He knew that Gaddafi could not win the propaganda war once the Arab League and the UN had voted against him.
And he was right. Unable to win the hearts of the Libyan people, the Gaddafi regime crumbled within six months.
As evidenced by the attack on the embassy, Libya has a way to go. But the case for optimism is strong. Abdurrahim El-Keib, the newly appointed prime minister of Libya is distinctly pro-American. El-Keib also is a former professor of electrical engineering from the University of Alabama. Yes, Alabama. Are you convinced he might be pro American?
Also, after the attack, tens of thousands of Libyans around the country came out to protest … the attack! Then a pro hoc militia formed out of the same protestors stormed the compound of the terrorists who attacked the embassy.
Moderates become much more vocal and active when the extremists with whom they compete lack a legitimate scapegoat. Without a scapegoat, attention is turned to the brutality and failures of the extremists rather than imagined threats from outside powers. The United States now has a higher approval rating in Libya than in Canada.
Despite all this, by virtue of a brilliant gnat-and-camel campaign by Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee, Americans are paying less attention to Obama’s efficient successes than to his minor missteps following the attack on the embassy.
Obama will lose the debate tomorrow if he fails to focus more listeners’ attention on the successes of 2011 than the recent sloppiness of 2012. Of course, he’ll get no help from Romney, whose only foreign policy stance with more support than opposition is the embassy attack. And the attack is much more recent than the war.
But most significantly, Obama’s version of the Libyan narrative requires more explanation than Romney’s. And, we aren’t remarkable at paying attention to long narratives.
Like the one I just typed.
Pay attention to this issue tonight. In my opinion, this is the only issue of the debate that will matter.