Paul Pillar

Libya, Our Heart's Desire

A common theme in criticism, especially from the right, of President Obama's approach to the popular upheaval in the Middle East is that when our nation's leaders identify a goal, the United States ought to do something—preferably something bold, direct, and immediate—to achieve that goal. Marc Thiessen, for example, after quoting the president's statement that Libya's Muammar Qaddafi “needs to step down from power and leave,” declares: “The president of the United States has spoken. The downfall of Qaddafi is now official U.S. policy. America's prestige has been engaged, and our credibility is on the line. So what is Obama going to do about it? Very little, it appears.” This sort of critical comment is in part just another effort to take Barack Obama down a notch and to play on the often used anti-Obama theme of dithering and indecisiveness. But it also reflects a broader pattern of thinking, one that holds that whatever the United States wants, the United States ought to be able to get. One that maintains that if something is worth doing, the United States is the one that ought to do it. One that, like a young child, focuses narrowly on the object of desire of the moment with little regard to costs and risks of actively pursuing that object and with little awareness of the choices that may have to be made between pursing that object and pursuing other ones. One that still tries to justify the Iraq War by asking, “Is the world better without Saddam Hussein?”

“The downfall of Qaddafi is now official U.S. policy” is a nonsensical statement. An outcome, desired or otherwise, is not a policy. The outcome in question in this case might come about through any of several possible means. The means that President Obama mentioned is Qaddafi stepping down and leaving. The president did not say anything about U.S. actions to achieve the outcome, and America's prestige is not engaged and its credibility is not on the line whether or not the United States takes any particular action.

The pattern of thought in question fails to realize that the United States is not able to get everything it would like to have, or at least not to get it without undue costs, risks, or damage to other U.S. interests. It fails also to realize that the best way to increase the chance the United States will get something it wants is not necessarily for the United States to accomplish the task itself. And it fails to recognize that there may be good reasons to declare the desirability of an outcome without identifying specific steps one intends to take to achieve it. The reasons in this case include being seen to be on the right rather than the wrong side of history, encouraging the actions of others in a position to make a difference, and providing ourselves a sense of direction when given the opportunity to react to serendipitous events.

This pattern of thought also provides no sense of proportion or measurement to determine to what lengths to go and what costs to sustain in pursuit of a desired outcome. It fails to distinguish, in other words, the nice to have from the need to have. George Will, in his excellent list of questions for those hankering to intervene forcefully in Libya, poses as the number one question: “The world would be better without Qaddafi. But is that a vital U.S. national interest? If it is, when did it become so? A month ago, no one thought it was.”

The failure to distinguish the proposition that something would be desirable from the proposition that we ought to start doing something new to try to get it is highly likely to get us in trouble. That is true of Libya as it is of other subjects.