If all you have is a hammer, Libya looks like a nail

A lot of people -- across the ideological spectrum -- are down on President Obama for his weirdly ambivalent approach to military action in Libya, which is now underway with the U.S. miliitary carving out a role so far that oddly enough resembles its commander-in-chief: Involved, yet ambivalent. How long are we staying? No one knows. Is the goal to get rid of Gadhafi or something less? Unclear.

The thing is, a small part of me identifies with Obama because I've felt the same way -- maybe ambivalent isn't exactly the right word, but torn. I'm not a big fan of war -- hopefully I've made that clear in more than six years of Attytood -- but I do believe there are times when military action is warranted. That includes self-defense, obviously (and yes, I did feel the Afghanistan mission once qualified in that regard, as much as I can remember from more than NINE years ago) but also -- and this is where it gets trickier -- when a show of global force and unity can stop a rogue leader or state from an active campaign of widespread and wanton killing, especially of unarmed civilians.

Textbook example? Bosnia, where a military effort at fairly low human cost to the allies ended a worsening humanitarian nightmare.  If you believe the paramount value in our world is preserving innocent human life, then a use of military force that demonstrably saves lives has a humanitarian purpose, even though a smaller number of presumably different people may die from the warfare that comes with that moral calculation.

I think the so-called "Obama doctrine" (which is similar to the views of Samantha Power, the foreign policy expert and Pulitzer Prize-winning author on genocide who was fired from Obama's 2008 campaign for a verbal gaffe) is similar to the view I just expressed. But is Libya such a situation? I'm not sure, and it doesn't seem like Obama is, either. But I'm just a dumb(bleep) blogger, while Obama is president of the United States -- he gets paid $400,000 to make hard decisions.

I appreciate his efforts to get UN and Arab League support, but military action in Libya could have prevented genocide and ended Gadhafi's regime fairly easily -- about 10-14 days ago. Now? It may be too late. (Although late word toniight that the allies are targeting Gadhafi's ground troops, which is probably beyond the scope of the UN resolution, may change the equation.) And if it's too late, the list of bad outcomes in Libya (like, say...a quagmire, increasing the loss of life and leaving Gadhafi in power while diminishing the prestige of America and the West) is growing larger than the list of potential good ones (lives saved, Gadhafi ousted).

And the list of questions also grows. Why isn't Obama seeking hasty congressional approval for this action (which I think would be a slam dunk)? The military says it's not targeting Gadhafi personally -- but why not? Wouidn't Gadhafi's speedy death end the conflict and save hundreds if not thousands of lives, which is the supposed goal of the entire Operation Odyssey Dawn, is it not? And what the hell is an Odyssey Dawn, anyway? Why is it so important to act now to save lives in Libya, when no American official has ever suggested trying to stop the senseless bloodshed and violence in the Ivory Coast? Is that because Libya has a cartoonish, universally despised dictator AND oil? Why did John McCain meet with Gadhafi just a couple of years ago and call him "an interesting man," when now he wants to kill him? Are there other "interesting men" that McCain knows that he now wants to blow up with a cruise missile?

But the biggest unanswered question is this, the proverbial elephant in the room, apologies (not really) to Rick Santorum. Why is brute military force increasingly the default poaition of the United States of America, and the people who lead it. While I think the situation in Libya is complicated (and nothing like Iraq -- here's a good explanation of why) and a decision could have gone either way, I also had little doubt that this was how it would end up, with the U.S. unleashing its awesome arsenal of shock and awe. Because we are the United States, and we are still by far the world's leading military power, even as the list of other areas in which we rank No. 1 -- you know, things like education and health care -- grows shorter by the year. It was just two weeks ago that we were starting a robust debate about these things, and about the destruction of the middle class in this country, and now suddenly that is vanished from the news.

The picture on the top (via Justin Elliott on Twitter) tells a remarkable story -- all three NYC newspapers, all cheerfully carrying massive friont page photos of the awesome and practically cathartic power of American cruise missiles, in a picture that was helpfuly provided to the media straight from Department of Defense. The only thing missing was Slim Pickens riding the missile, whooping it up and waving his hat like a rodeo rider. You know, people said they wanted Obama to act decisively on the issue, but what if he had come out "decisively" 10 days ago with a speech making the case against military action? Would people have been satisfied? I seriously doubt that. War is how presidents put their stamp on the Oval Office (even Reagan, who "won the Cold War" without firing a shot, pointlessly invaded Grenada at a similar juncture in his first term, and saw a huge spike in his approval rating).

If all you have is a hammer -- which is this case is the world's biggest military -- then every problem ultimately resembles a nail. That's how Afghanistan looked, and then that's how the world's oil-producing breadbasket of the Persian Gulf looked to George Bush and Dick Cheney, and that's how the crisis in Libya came to look, too. A nail. And so now here is America's opportunity to pound out a solution to all its frustration over the array of crises in the Arab world right now. Any other kind of problem-solving (such as alternative fuels, so every crisis in an oil-producing nation doesn't seen existential) seem lost in the bottle of the tool box.

I pray for the safety of our pilots, our soldiers and sailors and those of our allies, and for those brave Libyans who are willing to give their lives for freedom and to remove the shackles of a brutal dictator. I hope that Operation Odyssey Dawn is a huge success, and a quick one, with minimal casualties, and that the end result is democracy for the people of Libya -- and is also inspirational to those seeking freedom elsewhere. And when the work there is done, I hope that we head to the policy equivalent of Sears and get ourselves a bigger tool kit. Because just owning a hammer isn't enough to fix everything.