Someone at the Pentagon has a sense of irony

“Days not weeks” doesn’t sound like “Odyssey Dawn.”

I’m not sure what to think about the action in Libya. To my mind, we can’t allow Gaddafi to massacre his own countrymen. So I’m supportive. Yet after we ran our spear into the ground in Iraq, it’s hard not* to be sanguine about both the strategic and long-term humanitarian impact of this effort, not to mention the impact on our men and women in uniform.

President Obama has stated that heavy involvement of our forces will last “days not weeks.” So what’s with Operation Odyssey Dawn?

*Sorry–dumb edit glitch

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

20 thoughts on “Someone at the Pentagon has a sense of irony”

  1. I don’t get all this hand-wringing. The guy is crazy, he’s been terrorizing and killing his people for 40 years, they hate him and they’re trying to get rid of him. He’s killed Americans. In short, HE’S OUR ENEMY.

    I mean, this seems like a good opportunity to do something that serves both our values and our interests. It would have been better to act two weeks ago when the momentum was with the rebels. But there’s plenty of reason to believe that with our help they can prevail.

    Sends some good messages, too.

  2. MARCH 19, 2011
    OBAMA: ‘Today we are part of a broad coalition. We are answering the calls of a threatened people. And we are acting in the interests of the United States and the world’…

    MARCH 19, 2003
    BUSH: ‘American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger…

  3. And I suppose Congress has authorized the use of non-defensive military action against Libya, right? Especially since John Brennan has said that our military actions there might increase our risk of retaliatory terrorist acts, and so the American people should have at least some sort of say in the matter, right? Right?

    War will bankrupt us far before healthcare does.

  4. According to Atrios, one of the Tommahawk bombs costs between 500K and a million dollars. When we stop cutting basic services, we can *talk* about spending money in Libya. Till then, lets stop the stupidity that we are rich enough to patrol the world righting wrongs wherever we find them (but only in oil rich countries).

    Harold – how do you feel about the various genocides going on in other parts of the world -especially Africa? Do you support our intervening in those? If not, why do you support intervention in Libya? Is oil a humanitarian consideration?

    If we are to intervene, lets start at home – the humanitarian need here is great and getting worse. There is no reasonable excuse for getting into yet another morass over there. And I read somewhere that there are studies of the “liberation” of oil producing countries – they never return to their pre-liberation oil production.

  5. “it’s hard not to be sanguine … ”

    “Sanguine” means both “of the color of blood” and “cheerfully confident or optimistic.” I think that you meant the latter, so you should have said “it’s hard to be sanguine.”

  6. Odyssey Dawn?

    Sounds like the Pentagon is selling naming rights to our wars to porn producers…

    Shortening it to OD doesn’t sound very good either.

    The only question I have is, once democracy is imposed in Libya, is it on to Yemen and Bahrain next?

  7. The problem, as always, Larry, is “then what”.
    How does this work out?

    – one track is Gaddafi backs down, stops attacking the parts of the country he does not hold, and let’s them be. Basically Kurdistan post Gulf-War 1. And presumably the no-fly zone that keeps things that way has to be maintained throughout those long years until the guy dies or something else happens. Hardly days, or even weeks.

    – another track is that Gaddafi decides to retaliate in his Gaddafi style way, and some western plane blows up (or train, or chemical factory or refinery). No overt declaration of war. Perhaps, ala Lockerbie, some convincing proof of Libyan involvement can be found after years, perhaps not. So how does the west respond to the next accident it experiences — by declaring war on Libya on the assumption that it was them, or by even higher levels of “terrorists are everywhere” paranoia and intellectual civil war between those who say we should strike back and those who say we have no proof.

    – a third track is we have the all-out war on Libya. Let’s even say it goes well — in a week or two every Libyan plane is shot through, every tank is blown up, Gaddafi is in prison on his way to the Hague. What then happens to the running of Libya? We didn’t exactly do a great job of solving this problem in Iraq (or Afghanistan), and who thinks Libya will be any easier. There is, as far as I can tell, no Libyan Nelson Mandela whom everyone is prepared to accept as the next leader; there is, again as far as I can tell, not even any sort of single opposition that is accepted by the bulk of the country and that has earned itself the cred to make future hard decisions. All we have is a bunch of people who were united by hatred of Gaddafi, and that hatred is now over. And access to a huge pile of oil money for whoever manages to gain control. This seems a recipe for corruption on a massive scale.

    Meanwhile Libya today is actually, in most ways, a functioning country with the highest HDI in Africa, and various forms of social security. It is perfectly plausible that the primary consequence of throwing out Gaddafi will be replacing him with kleptocrats who destroy that functioning government — and how popular is the west going to be in fifteen years when people’s primary memories are “under Gaddafi everything worked pretty well, then the west threw him out and gave us this crappy non-functioning society”?

    What’s happening in Libya breaks my heart, and I understand the immediate emotional impulse to do something, anything, to fix it. But the problem is that “shoot up the place for five days, get rid of all the bad people, then leave them to happiness and rainbows” is NOT an option. The REAL options are along the lines I give above, and none of these seem any good, for either the west or even the bulk of the people of Libya. Let’s recall once again — did the US actually improve life for the bulk of Iraqis, with its invasion and everything that has happened since?

  8. I don’t even get the point of these “but what about X” where X is some other horrible third world atrocity. Obviously nations like people have both values and interests. Obviously also motivation to act will be greater when these are aligned. How this is supposed to be an argument against action in any given instance is beyond me.

  9. “112 Tomahawks…”

    at a total cost of $63.7 million (1999 dollars). Assuming that deficit hawks and chickenhawks are, largely, the same set of people, I guess our shared sacrifice does not include the vicarious testosterone rush.

  10. Maynard,
    Your reasoning is sound. You’ve shown that the world community’s actions are irrational if they think that we can bomb Libya into democracy. Neocons and Tony Blair are capable of thinking this, but I don’t think many other people are. So there is another reason why the world wants to bomb Libya.
    This reason is easy to express: Gaddafi is an unreliable business partner, and Libya has oil. Most of the Mukhabarat countries are easy for foreigners to deal with. Their dictators may be nasty, but they can be bought fairly cheap, and they tend to stay bought. Gaddafi is also nasty, but nobody thinks he will stay bought for long. Furthermore, Gaddafi also often gets bored with oppressing his people, and toys around with other jurisdictions: French Africa, Ireland, you name it. Your average mukhabarat dictator has little interest in causing trouble for his neighbors, apart from the usual rhetorical indignation heaped upon Israel. (After all, that’s what got Saddam Hussein in trouble.)
    So the bombing countries are probably counting on the third option: bombing Libya into a trustworthy dictatorship. This isn’t at all unrealistic: Kosovo.

  11. Larry,

    Since you obviously need a behavioral explanation, here it is. If we argue that we are doing this out of humanitarian concerns, the question is, “How do we choose which humanitarian catastrophe we will expend capital and treasure to intervene in?” Or, just how do we choose our battles. The question is really, “Are we doing this for humanitarian reasons?” and the answer is clearly no. We are doing this for OIL. But imagine Obama standing up and saying that we are intervening in Libya because our oil interests (the profits of Exxon and others) are threatened. How much less support would he have for this adventure. Further, no matter what we do, Libya is going to descend into tribal warfare – Qadafi brought unity some 40 years agi, but the various tribes are already restive. The Oil from Libya is lost if Qadafi falls, but we are supporting the other side in a civil war, the outcome of which if we win will be chaos and the loss of Libyian oil for the near term at least as the tribes squabble amongst themselves. So, our stated motivation is Bullshit and our underlying motivation is also crap if looked at carefully. At this point one must start to look at things like testosterone.

    Finally, we claim “Great Humanitarian Purpose” but we can’t provide for our own poor and sick – we are too broke. But in an hour, we blow off 60 million plus worth of missiles – Bullshit. If we have humanitarian concerns, they must begin at home. If we don’t have them at home, we simply don’t have them and any claim to behavior motivated by humanitarian concerns is prevarication and the real motivations need to be discovered. Again oil and the profits of our overlords in the energy industry.

    That is why one compares our choice to intervene in Libya and not in other situations, some of which are much worse.

    Your somewhat concrete thinking betrays you Larry.

  12. Foiled again. My (somewhat) concrete thinking betrays me. Although again I don’t understand what that’s suppose to mean.

    There are lots of reasons why this seems like the right thing to do. Most of all the guy is a loose cannon and incredibly destructive not only of his own people but others. He has the desire and the ability to project force. Most of the maniacs in Africa, for example, don’t.

    Similarly we can compare this situation to Yemen for example or Bahrain. Not democracies, and both are forcibly repressing efforts at political reform, although to be fair their leaders don’t seem nearly as crazy or murderous. But the point is neither one is rocking the boat.

    The US is a status quo power. What is in our interest most of all is stability. We’d happily cut a deal with Khamenei and Ahmedinejad if they were willing, and they’re as bad as Qaddafi if not worse. If nothing had happened in Libya we wouldn’t have done anything to stir things up. But as it happened the people stood up for themselves. Both intervening and not intervening now will have repercussions not just in Libya but outside it. If Libya had no oil but Qaddafi had the history he has and were acting as he is, we’d still be doing this.

    And for concrete thinkers like me, it matters that that history includes killing Americans. I think that’s also quite a good reason to knock this whack job over if we have the chance.

  13. For what it’s worth, Libya happened to come up during a phone call with some folks I know in Israel this morning, and after we all agreed that the “humanitarian” aspect of this intervention was but a cover, I was surprised to discover that they didn’t think oil was the primary motivation either. To them, it was obviously European panic over a threatened flood of Libyan refugees into Italy and France that was driving this whole affair.

    I’m guessing that this is conventional wisdom in Israel, which doesn’t guarantee anything, but it is a point of view I haven’t seen here.

  14. Did you mean to say “Libya today”, Maynard? I might believe that Libya a month ago was a functioning country with the highest HDI in Africa and various types of social security programs. But once it fell into widespread civil war with the head of state importing mercenaries from other countries because his own military was reluctant to massacre their countrypeople, I’d imagine the HDI fell a little bit.

    You might argue that in the interests of stability we should have helped Gaddafi put down the rebellion before it could really get started, but the opportunity for that is long passed.

  15. (Harold): “So what’s with Operation Odyssey Dawn?”
    Literally, the begining of a loooong journey.
    (Jake): “I might believe that Libya a month ago was a functioning country with the highest HDI in Africa…”
    OTOH, aggregate statistics don’t mean much from modern democratic countries, when you can (sort of) trust them and they mean considerably less from despotic regimes, when statisticians will be forced to watch as agents of State Security feed their children into the wood chipper if they tell the truth.
    eb, Larry, thanks for interesting comments.

  16. “To my mind, we can’t allow Gaddafi to massacre his own countrymen.”

    What is this possibly supposed to mean? Taken literally, it’s false. If it means that morality impels us to intervene, that can’t be true either, since we haven’t intervened in many other more brutal civil wars. I’m not completely opposed to intervention in Libya, but I can’t believe we’re going to war based on such half-assed arguments.

  17. ““To my mind, we can’t allow Gaddafi to massacre his own countrymen.”

    I would add that we are allowing the gov’t of Bahrain to do just that, with eager Saudi help. Right now, there’s a whole bunch of fresh corpses being bulldozed into body pits with US-made bullets and shrapnel in their bodies.

    It comes down to oil.

  18. Indeed, we absolutely *can* allow him to massacre the rebels and, of course, we have in the past and are currently “allowing” such massacres elsewhere.

    Or we can believe we’re global policeman (a corrupt and inconsistent one, of course) and get involved in a 3rd (4th if you count drone strikes in Yemen, 5th if you separate out drone strikes in Pakistan from the Afghanistan war) war, in which we spend money we don’t have to kill people we know little about in support of people we know little about.


  19. A shovel-ready project in these tough economic times. Employment for our high school graduates and increased production in our factories.

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