You have to hand it to Obama. The man is a smooth operator. When he got into power, Republicans threw up their hands in horror at the prospect of a leftie peacenick used to ‘palling around with terrorists’ getting his hands on reigns of American power.

Nearly four years on, most of the Bush era exceptional measures against terrorism are still in place. Guantanamo Bay hasn’t been closed down and, for this, Obama has been given the Nobel peace prize.

He’s bombed the hell out of a Middle Eastern country and so far from being seen as another crusader imperialist, they’re actually thanking him for it. Muammar al-Gaddafi, long America’s ultimate bête noir is a man on the run with a price on his head. And Osama bin Laden is lying fifty fathoms deep with a bullet in his head. Chomsky has famously suggested that there is basically no difference between Democrats and Republicans. He’s wrong. Democrats are competent.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece on Libya which a few Bright Green readers may remember. On the eve of the UN Security Council decision about the ‘no fly zone’ that was subsequently imposed. My argument was, basically, that the least worst option for Libya (if it even was an option which, probably, it wasn’t) would not be intervention by NATO, but intervention by Egypt.

However things pan out from here on in, I’d like to admit that I was wrong in my analysis about two important assumptions. My main mistake was to misread what Arabic public opinion would do. My fear was that once NATO started bombing (I was right at least in saying that this would go well beyond a mere no-fly zone) good will for the rebels would be seriously compromised, and Gaddafi would suddenly be seen as a hero again. This in turn would weaken the solidarity, resolve, and momentum of rebel forces on the ground.

I think it was an understandable mistake. First, the same thing happened to Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003. Second, Gaddafi had a lot more residual affection to draw on that did Saddam. For many, he might be crazy, but he had some guts, and wasn’t afraid to confront America or to speak his mind in ways other Arab leaders were too frightened to do.

A cynic might suggest that one reason this didn’t happen was that strings were being discreetly pulled behind the scenes. Qatar was the Arabic country most directly involved in the NATO operation. And as Wikileaks has told us, Al Jazeera is not as free from political manipulation in favour of its patron’s interests as it appears to be.

But I think that Al Jazeera was also capturing a genuine public mood. And this was made possible by the simple fact that the boots on the ground were, in the end, Libyan boots. The blood being shed was, in the end, Libyan blood. No one really wanted to believe that that blood was other than pure, that its victory was somehow compromised by reliance on foreign technology.

Which brings me on to my second mistake. Like a classic Clauswitzian, I started with the axiom that if you’re going to go to war, you’d better be ready to do it properly. And that means, in the end, putting boots on the ground. Since I was pessimistic about the prospect for Libyan resolve holding up (particularly if the tide of opinion turned in Gaddafi’s favour), and since clearly NATO troops in Libya would have been an utter disaster, that made me highly suspicious of the whole operation’s prospects for success.

Of course, the US was also thinking in Clauswitzian terms. It’s just that they realized that today, ‘total war’ does not mean quite the same as it did in the Nineteenth century. Total war means using every power resource at your disposal – what the International Relations thinker Joseph Nye calls ‘smart power’. The NATO (and the fact that the US was so shy of the limelight in this intervention, while supplying most of the actual firepower was one of the best examples of this) intervention in Libya has been a masterclass in the total use of smart power.

Which raises the question: if you’re going to have imperialism, would you rather it were done well, or done badly? I’m a bit of a cynic, myself. I’d rather the Republic. But if I have to choose, I prefer Augustus to Caligula. I suspect some Bright Green readers may disagree.

Gilbert Ramsay

About Gilbert Ramsay

Dr. Gilbert Ramsay is a lecturer on terrorism at the University of St. Andrews.