Are American conservatives the new French?


Before the French were dubbed “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” they were mocked in certain American circles for puffing themselves up in the name of glory rather than doing what was necessary to actually succeed.  Now, as the New York Times notes, French leadership on Libya has compelled many in the Pentagon — a bastion of France skeptics, naturally — to look anew at France’s mettle, while the right wing’s reaction to the fall of Gaddafi makes me wonder whether conservatives have become the new French.

The success of Obama’s approach in Libya stands in stark contrast to George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq: a brutal dictator was toppled by his own people at no cost in American lives and at practically no cost in American treasure.  Whether post-Gaddafi Libya will prove to be a Jeffersonian democracy remains to be seen; but so, too, does the  post-Saddam Iraq, so the weight of judgment on the two policies is still quite stark.  Last April, in the final paragraph of a Ryan Lizza piece in the New Yorker, an Obama advisor described the approach in Libya as “leading from behind,” which became shorthand for the emerging Obama doctrine and a phrase much-denigrated on the right.  But this week the New Yorker editor David Remnick points out in a follow-up opinion piece that the more accurate phrase would be “leading from behind the scenes” and since its success (at least in Libya) can’t be denied the only thing about it that seems to bother the right is that it doesn’t allow the US the chance to beat its chest and parade around — the Texas version, you could say, of la gloire that Charles de Gaulle used to harp on about.  Remnick draws a similar conclusion, but frames it more gently:

There are no sure outcomes in foreign policy, only a calculation of consequences, guided by an appraisal of national interests and values. The trouble with so much of the conservative critique of Obama’s foreign policy is that it cares less about outcomes than about the assertion of America’s power and the affirmation of its glory. In the case of Libya, Obama led from a place of no glory, and, in the eyes of his critics, no results could ever vindicate such a strategy. Yet a calculated modesty can augment a nation’s true influence. Obama would not be the first statesman to realize that it can be easier to win if you don’t need to trumpet your victory.

I would go further.  George W. Bush used to remind me of the short, scrawny kid on the school playground who always picks fights and won’t shut up about his modest victories.  A genuinely strong, confident power doesn’t need to show off.  That’s what used to make French peacocking so ridiculous: it was clearly an attempt to balm the wound to national pride of surrender in WWII and to mask its diminished power in the world afterward.  Now it is American conservatives who act recklessly in a desperate attempt to prove themselves, while the Obama administration just goes about its business and does what needs doing.


Click here to read the Libya article I wrote and photographed for Travel + Leisure to gain a sense of what Libya feels like on the ground.  Or here for why the US was right to intervene in Libya and how it marks the end of the neo-colonial argument.  Or here for an excerpt from my Libya journals about the surreal experience of running through the Tripoli medina with a human rights activist.  Or here for a look inside my copy of Gaddafi’s infamous Green Book.  Or here for videos that show the Libya my family knew in the 1960s, before Gaddafi came to power.



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