Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Mar 22, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column, In the Mideast, U.S. policy is still driven by realism in which Gene writes: "Anyone looking for principle and logic in the attack on Moammar Gaddafi's tyrannical regime will be disappointed. President Obama and his advisers should acknowledge the obvious truth: They are reacting to the revolutionary fervor in the Arab world with the arbitrary 'realism' that is a superpower's prerogative."

Hi, everyone. Welcome to our weekly discussion -- and I wish we had something to talk about. Not much news lately, right? I mean, besides the earthquake, the tsunami, the nuclear plant, the new war in Libya, the revolution that seems to be happening today in Yemen... If there's an "overload" button, quick, somebody push it. Let's get started before some other world-changing event happens.

Gene, your use of "duh" in reference to the President implies stupidity on his part. 1. Had you considered that when you wrote it? Are you implying President Obama is stupid? 2. Related question: Don't you and other media elites play stupid about what dictators friendly to the US are doing when their own people are not rising up against them? Years of silence on Egypt and the rest of the so-called Middle East. Now all of a sudden you dare criticize this president for not going after the same dictators that you and others in the media have failed to go after? Duh? You gotta be kidding me. This president is careful about what he gets his country into. That is the story here. You can harp on hypocrisy all you want. It is so easy to do that, isn't it? The tougher story is how best can America manifest its idealism and principles in a very complex political world? Don't abandon your president when he could really use a deeper analysis. Broder is gone. Your turn to be That political journalist who can balance reality with idealism, who can help the people accept the contradictions and understand that they would do the same thing if they were in the president's shoes. Don't treat us like children, Gene. We know why America is going after Gaddafi. The same reason Bush went after Saddam. The man weak, man. Iran's president is not weak. China's leader is no punk, either. We destroy the powerful punks of the world. The powerful bullies, we leave alone. Question: What would you do? What would you tell the American people, if you were in the White House authorizing involvement in yet another amorphous war way over there on the other side of the planet? - DC Reader

Um, tell us how you really feel. In my column today about the Libya war, I used "duh" not to imply any lack of intelligence -- President Obama is one of the smartest people I've ever met -- but to note something he said that just didn't make sense. He said allowing Gaddafi to stay would "destabilize" the region. But the Mad Hatter has been in charge in Libya for decades -- he represents a horrible kind of stability. What is destabilizing, at least to his regime, is the rise of an armed opposition. Of course we should be on the side of the rebels, but in terms of what's stabilizing and what's destabilizing, the president had it backwards.

Gene, When the protests were peaceful, we had a good idea who was behind them. For the most part it was the everyday civilian just upset at his gov. However as these protests have turned more violent, history shows us that extremists often take hold of these opportunities. Libya has ties to Al-Qaeda in the past and as the protests in Baharian are now becoming tied to Iran. I hope Obama knows that its just more important who will be the leaders as removing the bad ones. Replacing one thug with another does us no good.

I think it would surely be better for Libya, and for the world, if Gaddafi were gone. Your point is well taken, in that I'm not sure we know a whole lot about the rebels, but we do know about Gaddafi and he's a thug, a terrorist, a murderer... Hard to do worse.

It seems to me that the United States is caught between supporting democracy as a principle applicable to everyone and doing what is best for the United States. As a citizen (and a proud liberal) I would love to be able to say that democracy is best for everyone. But that's not necessarily the case particularly when there is no history nor experience with it; I hasten to say that I am not supporting brual dictators. At the same time, while Saddam Hussein was never a nice man, Iraq when it was stable was a counterweight to Iran. That was better for our security. How would you reconcile these two frequently opposing objectives?

My view is that we have to stand for democracy. Sometimes the people who get elected are not the ones we would prefer. But democracies are almost always more friendly than dictatorships.

What do you think would happen if the U.S. just did nothing during some international crisis? I feel like if we did nothing, people would cry and say the U.S. is scared, if we do something, the U.S. is a bully.

True. The burden of being a superpower is being criticized for whatever you do, or don't do.

The U.N. Security Council voted to enforce a "no fly zone" in Libya. 10 votes for, with 5 abstentions. They apparently included in the resolution, "by all means necessary". Can a U.N. resolution, overrule the United States constitution, that requires a president get senate approval for war. [Hundreds of cruise missile strikes and bomber attacks are acts of war]

What President Obama did, in ordering U.S. military forces into action, was fully in keeping with what the last umpteen presidents have done. The Constitution gives Congress the right to declare war. But presidents of both parties have long asserted the right, as commander in chief, to send Americans to what you or I would consider "war." No president is going to surrender this prerogative, I predict, and neither Congress nor the Supreme Court is going to do anything about it.

Your editorial inspired me to ask the following question: Have you considered the possibility that our policies in the Arab world (specifically, supporting friendly and useful tyrants who help us catch terrorists) actually makes it harder to treat the underlying causes of terrorism? What if the despotic Arab regimes themselves are the greatest cause of Arab terrorism? What if cooperating with those regimes, in an effort to treat the "symptoms" (currently active terrorists) actually makes it more difficult to threat the underlying "disease" (a lack of freedom and opportunity in Arab societies)? Have you met any one in the Obama administration who is concerned about this dilemma? Is any one asking why there are so many Arab terrorists in the world today? Is any one considering the possibility that our support for friendly and useful despotic regimes is actually a major contributing factor in the rise of Arab terrorism?

You are correct. The president and his advisers are fully aware that the despotism of Arab-world leaders has suppressed both freedom and economic growth, and that the condition of being poor and oppressed is fertile soil for terrorism to grow. So, at the White House and in Foggy Bottom, they get it. They understand why we'll be better off with a democratic Egypt in which citizens feel they have a full stake, rather than an Egypt ruled by Hosni Mubarak and his cronies. What the administration hasn't done is apply this logic to the really hard cases -- Saudi Arabia, Barhrain, Jordan, Yemen. One striking thing about the democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt was that you didn't hear anti-American slogans. When we live up to our ideals, people get it.

with Iraq, Afghanistan, wounded soldiers, Mideast uprisings, dictators, earthquakes/aftershocks, ditto threat in California, tsunami, nuclear poisoning, plus the crazy, senseless murder in Bethesda, gas and food prices, constant Metro breakdowns, politcal fights, Wisconsin, gun violence ... it *is* overload. I'm feeling overwhelmed. Ever time I think no more news can happen, we can't take any more absurdity/sadness/trouble, I think back to 1968 and how scared my parents must have been at the constant assassinations and riots and revolution all over the country and the world in every realm -- politics, music, food, living conditions, religion, ideology.

I remember 1968, and it was unsettling but also exhilarating. The world was changing. With the dramatic political change happening in Arab countries, it's hard for me not to feel hopeful -- and I can't wait to find out what happens next. Nothing hopeful about what's happening in Japan, though.

Say we take out all of Libya's tanks, planes, and helicopters, and the rebels still lose. How long are we supposed to maintain this no fly zone and bombing campaign? For all his talk of 'smart wars' Obama has signed us up for another open ended commitment to a country no one in America knows anything about. Why is a former Italian colony that trades with Europe, and imports workers from Egypt our responsibility to police? I'm sick of this well we are the super power nonsense, they aren't sheep, let them fix their own problems.

The answer is a simple question that Ed Rendell asked me this morning on MSNBC: How would we feel if we did nothing and Gaddafi's forces killed 70,000 people in Benghazi? We'd feel awful at not having done something to prevent the slaughter. We'd feel the way Clinton administration officials felt when they learned the full horror of what had happened in Rwanda.

But we need a better-developed doctrine of humanitarian military intervention, and it's something that we citizens and our elected representatives should discuss. As I wrote this morning, I would have had a hard time standing by and watching a massacre in Benghazi. But "Hey, something really bad is about to happen, send in the Marines" isn't a doctrine, it's a spasm. We need to figure out when and why such intervention is justified.

What does a likely exit strategy from Libya look like, and what do you believe it should look like?

I don't know. One issue is that we are working toward two different goals. The UN-sanctioned international effort is supposed to protect civilians -- nothing more. But President Obama says that U.S. policy is that Gaddafi should go. So, if we've made it impossible for Gaddafi to bomb Benghazi and other urban areas, have we sufficiently protected citizens? Is it even possible to protect civilians with just an air campaign? And even when we've satisfied ourselves that civilians are safe, do we then act in accord with our policy -- meaning, do we go after Gaddafi -- or not?

I recognize that this president, along with past presidents, has the autonomy to functionally declare war without Congressional approval. But is there at least something to be made about the fact that then-Senator Obama sure used to be strongly against the practice?

The syndicated clumnist Cal Thomas, who is about as far from me on the ideological spectrum as you could imagine, wrote a piece quoting the speech President Obama gave more than eight years ago opposing war in Iraq. I have to admit it was pretty effective.

Through our western lens, democracy is the solution but keep in mind democracy sometimes chooses the "wrong" guy (Hamas) and policies contrary to our human rights standards (Sharia law). Signapore is a "democratic" state but PAP and Lee Kwan Yew (and now his son) have run the nation since ceding from Malaya in the 60s. Human rights are mostly respected, the nation is prosperous, and the populace is generally content. I'd contend that a benevolent dictator is preferable to an abusive, democratically elected leader.

If you have a real democracy, you can get rid of an abusive leader. And dictators are never wholly benevolent.

I dislike all the carping that we are not "leading" in Libya. I for one am happy to have Europe do their fair share for once. the US is have to supply $$$ and men to protect the rest of the world, while other countries can reduce the size of their military to save $$ and lives counting on us to do all the heavy lifting. Time for other countries to do more that send a token force to just talk.

I agree totally on this point. It's good to see France, Britain and others really participating. We should be honest and point out, however, that without U.S. naval assets and cruise missiles, this would be a very different -- and much less effective -- operation.

Clinton failed to act in Rwanda not because he "didn't know" about the magnitude of the atrocities, it was widely reported throughout the EU at the time. Surely you're not claiming we didn't know when the Clinton adinistration forbid CIA operatives from destroying the radio towers used to broadcast Tutsi hit lists. Reality is that waiting for consensus invites opposition from countries whose commercial interests conflict with our humanitarian ethics. By the way, what's our excuse for Cambodia, Uganda, Bosnia, etc.? Didn't know? What should prevail? Humanitarian interests or political/commercial?

That's why we need a doctrine. Samantha Power, who is working in the administration, has done a lot of thinking and writing about the issue. We should talk about it.

It seems pointless to stress that we're doing one thing to Libya and another thing to other countries. To demand the exact same policy in every instance is not only unworkable, but it also leads to endless logically incoherent conclusions about American policy. If I give $5 to a homelss person, should I be criticized because I didn't give a different homeless person money the day before? If I physically intervene to stop one child from hitting another, am I a hypocrite because I didn't physically intervene to stop one man with a gun from trying to shoot another? And even if I technically am, so what? Suppose we say fine, since we can't help everyone, we won't help anyone. We sit by while Qaddafi's forces brutally quash the revolt and murder tens of thousands of people. Then a week later Libya reopens for business - should we continue to buy oil from them? Does that make us guilty of supporting dictators, or does it make us consistent because we don't play favorites? Or do we isolate Libya completely, like we do with Cuba or Iran (or used to do with Libya)? Then what?

So maybe the doctrine is "We do what's possible." But what does that mean, even in this one case? Do we help the rebels? How long do we stay? Do we get rid of Gaddafi? Do we act to protect innocent life, or do we also want to promote democracy? I'm not saying we don't ever intervene on humanitarian grounds, I'm just asking when and why.

We've announced that Gaddafi is not himself a target of the allied attacks on his compound, but that makes me wonder: why not? Don't mean to sound naive, or bloodthirsty. I don't think that "he'd become a martyr" is enough of a reason. And perhaps we're targeting only machinery, but we know that soldiers will die, right? So if his soldiers are okay to kill, why not Gaddafi himself?

There's a law against assassinating foreign leaders. But it shouldn't apply if we're at war. But we're not at war. But the president has said that Gaddafi is no longer the legitimate leader of his country... In any event, I don't see how we serve our stated policy goal -- Gaddafi out -- without going after him in some fashion.

Come on Eugene...that is ridiculous. He knew very well, he just decided to do nothing. Worse, the UN was there with 2,200 troops and guns...and we let men with machetes butcher 1 million people. Talk about revisionism....

I misspoke, or mistyped. I didn't mean to imply that the administration was unaware of the genocide that was taking place. I meant to say that afterwards, administration officials believed they should have acted.


And that's all the time I have for today, folks. Thanks for tuning in, and I'll see you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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