As the situation in Libya has evolved over the past month, from street demonstrations to civil war to international intervention, commentators across the world have searched for a historical analogy. Is Libya like Vietnam? How about Iraq? Kosovo? Bob talks to Foreign Policy's managing editor, Blake Hounshell, about whether these analogies are at all meaningful and makes him choose a favorite.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Speaking on Libyan state television last month, Saif Gaddafi, son and partner in kleptocracy to Muammar, told Libyans what their country wasn't.
INTERPRETER VOR SAIF GADDAFI: The young people who are in the street trying to imitate what happened in Egypt - Libya is not Egypt.
BOB GARFIELD: Fair enough, Libya isn't Egypt. And, sure enough, the Gaddafis haven't been squeezed out of power as easily as Hosni Mubarak was. But if not the Egyptian revolution, what comparison does suit the Libyan crisis? As events have unfolded, from street protests to civil war, U.S. pundits and politicos have rushed to invoke their own historical analogies for Libya. Democrat Anthony Weiner suggested Libya was like Rwanda. Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer chose another African country.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: Libya will probably end up as a failed state. It could end up like Somalia.
BOB GARFIELD: On FOX News, the preferred analogies are generally Afghanistan and Iraq:
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: So isn't this what President Bush went through in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq?
BOB GARFIELD: Except for the channel’s resident liberal, Alan Colmes.
ALAN COLMES: This is much more like Kosovo than Iraq or Afghanistan.
BOB GARFIELD: Foreign Policy Magazine’s Managing Editor Blake Hounshell says that to understand this plague of comparisons, it helps to know that there aren't many who know what we, the audience, do not know. Pundits abhor a vacuum, he says, and will fill it with just anything, informed or not. I asked Hounshell for his analogy.
BLAKE HOUNSHELL: No historical analogy is perfect but I think the closest parallel we have is actually Bosnia. This operation in Libya is a humanitarian operation. There are very few pragmatic reasons to go in there, aside from saving civilians from an impending massacre. Unfortunately in Bosnia we weren't able to, to save thousands of people quickly enough.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, actually, I was going to quibble with you on exactly that point. There was more than a year of dillydallying, and even then such limited rules of engagement that enabled Bosnian Serb forces to massacre thousands and thousands of people. The Libya intervention, you know, has happened in a matter of just a couple of weeks.
BLAKE HOUNSHELL: Yeah, and that’s exactly, I think, why it unnerves a lot of people who really weren't following the debate and weren't prepared when President Obama made the decision to act.
BOB GARFIELD: In some ways, the comparison game, as you suggested, is verging on silly. But can we trust that the motivation of those who are invoking one bit of history over another is to really clarify and frame the significance of this, as opposed to some, you know, perhaps more nefarious political purpose? When Newt Gingrich shows up to compare Libya to Iraq, do we have any reason to think that he's seeking the right historical context or, or just flogging a political point of view?
BLAKE HOUNSHELL: Well, you know, it’s funny. Newt Gingrich was beating up Obama for nonintervening, and then after he did intervene he criticized Obama for intervening. So I think we can assume that Newt Gingrich is just looking to score political points one way or the other. But I think raising Iraq raises an interesting subject because I think a lot of us are still refighting the Iraq War and looking at Libya through the lens of Iraq. But it’s a very different situation, it’s a very different moment in history, and I think it’s a flawed analogy, for many reasons.
BOB GARFIELD: As you've watched the coverage and read about it, is there anything that’s struck you as particularly ill informed?
BLAKE HOUNSHELL: There was a piece in The Nation by Robert Dreyfuss arguing that Obama made this decision and it was his female advisors who sort of bewitched him into it, and he’s bucking international opinion on dubious legal premises. He actually used the line that Gaddafi is making some good points, which I thought was just so morally obtuse.
BOB GARFIELD: And, as you watch TV, have you wanted to climb through the screen [LAUGHS] and shake anybody and say, don't talk about that, talk about this?
BLAKE HOUNSHELL: Well, you know, what really chafes me is when the sort of broader cable news shouters get involved - that’s usually late in the game - and it no longer becomes a story about Libya or Bahrain or Iraq or wherever. It becomes a story about U.S. politics and it becomes, you know, this partisan slugfest. And, you know, these are people fighting and dying and, and risking their lives for freedom, and to see it dragged into this usual partisan shouting match is really depressing.
BOB GARFIELD: I certainly know a lot more about Libya than I did three weeks ago. Please tell me it’s not all a bad-news story of ignorance and political posturing, please?
BLAKE HOUNSHELL: No, absolutely not, and there’s been a lot of good commentary in the newspapers, and there’s been a lot of really courageous, insightful reporting from the front lines, as well. There was a particularly good column in The New York Times on Thursday by Nick Kristof, a columnist who’s been traveling around the Arab world for the last few weeks and covering these Arab uprisings. And he made the point that, look, I know that there are a lot of people out there that are worried about the risks of this US-led intervention in Libya, but this is the first time, I think, we've ever seen Arabs cheering on a U.S. intervention in their country. And I think that’s a real important watershed moment.
BOB GARFIELD: Blake, thank you very much.
BLAKE HOUNSHELL: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It was my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Blake Hounshell is managing editor of Foreign Policy Magazine.