History: Handle With Care!

Ms. OB and I spent the latter part of last week doing our dangdest to spoil one Barrett Callaway Cobb, now age 10 months, while celebrating the birthday of Barrett's dad, now--yikes!--468 months. These festivities obviously coincided with our latest national experiment in international intervention in the form of the U.S. taking what promises, despite our State Department propaganda, to be the leading role in imposing a so-called no-fly zone in Libya. With the worm definitely turning against the anti-Qaddafi forces, it didn't exactly take an international affairs guru to figure out that the murder and mayhem attendant to suppressing the Libyan uprising would look like a church picnic compared to the reprisals that would come in its aftermath.

Still, while the OB can't dispute a legitimate humanitarian argument for what we're trying to do, he was struck nonetheless by the fact that the most frequently cited rationale for doing what we're doing in Libya was rooted in what we didn't do back in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide, which, in roughly three months time, produced an estimated death toll in excess of three quarters of a million people. In this respect, weirdly enough, both our little family gathering and the Libyan undertaking actually took me back to last May when, all flush with excitement and exhilaration over my new Grandpahood, I observed in these very pages that it was "only natural that grandparents seize on the opportunity to correct what they did wrong the first time around." In truth, most of us probably did our greatest disservices to our kids by saying 'yes' when 'no' was the more appropriate response. Our most painful memories of parenthood, though, are of those times when we punished when we might have forgiven or scolded when we might have hugged, so grandparental overindulgence of the little ones is simply a given."

This is hardly the only example of compensatory human behavior, of course. Feeling guilty for brushing off a panhandler on one corner, we shower largesse on another alms-seeker two blocks down, or having tolerated a rude sales clerk at the mall that afternoon, we make a big deal about our server mixing up our drink orders that evening. Although it is utterly foolish to simply anthropomorphize (The vocabulary-challenged should mash here)  national actions or policy, it is just as foolish to overlook the fact that these are always fashioned by human beings driven not simply by their intellectual appraisal of current and past conditions and crises but their emotional responses to them as well. As the OB has also pointed out in these pages, because the capitulation to Adolph Hitler's demand for the Sudetenland (then a part of Czechoslovakia) at Munich in 1938 did not prevent the ensuing Nazi aggression that led to World War II in Europe, we fell prey to the "Munich Syndrome." Our  shame over having been a party to this "appeasement" at Munich quickly translated into blaming it  for a war that almost certainly was coming, one way or another  and virtually dictated a subsequent "no-negotiations" approach to every Cold War confrontation with the Russkies. In fact, ol' "Rummy" even reached back for the Munich allusion when he tried to label opponents of his Iraq folly as "appeasers."

Bubba Clinton has indicated more than once that failing to intervene in Rwanda is one of his greatest regrets. (Unfortunately, it is not clear at this point where Monica Lewinsky stands on this list. ) Hence, it's not so surprising, perhaps, that in addition to Secretary of State What's-Her-Name, one of the staunchest proponents of intervention in Libya is Susan Rice, our UN ambassador, who was once the Clinton administration's point person on African affairs and is reportedly "haunted" by Clinton's refusal to do more to stop the killing in Rwanda. Rice has been quoted as saying "If I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required."   (Note to Susan: If the OB had said that, he'd think it prudent to start shopping for some asbestos underdrawers right about now.) Throw in Obama's senior National Security Council aide Samantha Power, also a strident critic of US inaction in Rwanda,  and you have three very strong and, coincidentally or not, female voices in favor of preventing Libya from becoming "another Rwanda."
  Without denying that comparable civilian death tolls might be achieved, the two cases hardly cry out for comparison, a fact that might well make the failure to act in Rwanda seem even more tragic in retrospect. It's certainly hard to see the international diplomatic consequences for Rwandan intervention being nearly so critical as those for the Libyan involvement, for example. However one interprets Libya's importance to our oil supply, the potentially destabilizing effect on the global market is surely a matter of some consequence. Although the Obama administration is quick to point to the Arab League's call for a no-fly zone, as the OB has already predicted, when the first reports of actual on-the-ground casualties came in, this bunch of jokers started complaining about the missile attacks, as if it were going to be possible to keep Qaddafi at bay by simply shooting paint balls at him. Although It might have made for good diplomacy to have Nicolas Sarkozy as the first "face" of military action against Libya, it seems risky to have French aircraft involved, given the likelihood that when the first pilot goes down, the rest of them might just white-flag it, park their planes, and settle in with a nice bottle of red that goes down well with goat. I don't know about you, but the thought of ol' Muammar whooping it up at the Arc de Triomphe with his buddy Charlie Sheen is not a scene the OB particularly relishes. Obama and his minions may forswear the use of U.S. ground troops right now, but ultimately there just ain't any other way to settle this mess without some of our boots on their soil.

Finally, there is the rather cloudy question of our end game in this affair. While Oby seems to want Qaddafi out of the picture, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has left the door open for him to possibly stick around. Accepting this latter option would be ironic indeed, given that another of the presumed miscues of the past currently being used to justify this likely miscue in the present is the behavior of Saddam Hussein after he was left unmolested in 1991. We might recall here that the no-fly zones  we were eventually forced to establish back then  in order to protect the rebellious Kurds in northern Iraq proved to be necessary so long as Saddam remained in power and were thus anything but short-term measures.  While we clearly don't know exactly what this current crisis really is, we probably should keep reminding ourselves that it isn't Munich in 1938 or Rwanda in 1994 or even Baghdad in 1991, each of which had specific concerns and ramifications peculiar to its own circumstances. The OB deeply appreciates the laudable intentions of folks who love to quote the Spanish philosopher Santayana to the effect of "Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it," but he feels obliged to offer a friendly reminder that "the lessons of the past" are seldom as straightforward, let alone as universally applicable to the present, as they might seem.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim Cobb published on March 21, 2011 2:59 PM.

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