President Barack Obama’s decision to impose a ‘no fly zone plus’ on Libya obviously worries the gathering swarm of declared, undeclared and/or ‘just in it for the publicity’ Republican presidential candidates, though their reasons probably have less to do with furthering American national interests than with its effect on their chances of being elected in 2012. The most obvious reason for concern is that their reactions have exposed the fragmentation of a once monolithic GOP.
Republicans are all over the map on Libya. At one end of the spectrum, Rand Paul opposes any military action in Libya. At the other end of the spectrum, Tim Pawlenty not only demands military action against Libya but also against Syria. Newt Gingrich has occupied positions on both sides of the question, demanding military action before Obama acted and denouncing military action after he acted. Donald Trump wants to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi but frets that the Libyan rebels might be the pawns of either al-Qaeda or Iran. Haley Barbour sounds as cautious as he does indecisive. Michele Bachmann just knows that Barack Obama has done something that requires her unblinking condemnation. So collectively disoriented by the decision are the Republican presidential wannabes that they have inadvertently positioned themselves in roughly equal numbers on either side the mid-point of the policy decision spectrum that Obama occupies.
Republican anxiety is also driven by the awareness that almost any presidential decision to use the armed forces, no matter how pointless or incompetent, tends to earn increased public support. During the May 1975 Mayaguez Incident, Gerald Ford enjoyed a temporary boost in his public approval ratings after ordering the U.S. military to free the civilian crew members of a container ship held by the Khmer Rouge, even after the public learned the captives had been freed before the military action, which cost the lives of 18 U.S. military personnel, had begun. Barack Obama seems to have been rewarded for his decision in Libya with a similar bump in public support. According to the March 18-21 CBS News Poll, 68% of the respondents expressed approval of the American air strikes in Libya and 50% approve of Obama’s handling of Libya. That is impressive given the unremitting criticism directed at the president.
Then there is the anxiety that Obama might be yet another Democratic president who wins wars the way Americans like them: brief, successful, relatively bloodless and relatively unstained by atrocities against civilians. Unlike George W. Bush, who is responsible for the unending nightmares of Afghanistan and Iraq, Bill Clinton came close to realizing the ideal in Kosovo with a military and political victory largely achieved through aerial bombardment. Should Obama topple the tyrant of Tripoli with air strikes, Americans may be reminded of the execrable foreign policy performance of the last Republican in the White House.
Events in Libya offer Republicans reason to hope and Democrats reason to worry, however. The country might not emerge from its civil war either intact or governed as a happy liberal democracy. The rebels are clearly struggling to organize a proper army. Even with the support of the United States, France and Britain, they may end up in control only of eastern Libya. Whether intact or divided, the country seems destined to remain authoritarian by the oil revenues that provide most of its wealth. Dependence on oil undermines democratization because it relieves governments of dependence on taxing their citizens and thus from the need to listen to them. It also tends to transform political competition from a variable sum game to a zero sum game. Political elites could divvy up the cash flow with a share for everyone, but why bother when it can be monopolized through the use of coercion? Norms that limit political violence collapse in such environments. From Equatorial Guinea to Brunei, rentier states, or states that rely on economic rents (windfalls) from oil, appear condemned to authoritarianism in some form. Add religious fanaticism to the equation and tyranny is almost guaranteed.
The trick for the Obama administration will be to claim success, whether in safeguarding civilians from massacre or forcing a colorful dictator from power, while avoiding being trapped in a third military occupation by handing off the resulting mess to its perhaps only temporarily bellicose French and British allies. The Republican candidates who want his job are in the unenviable and unpatriotic position of having to wish that he fails.