So let us begin with the point that I think we must necessarily acknowledge to be obvious. NATO was not involved in Libya in order to protect civilians, at least beyond the initial stages of the conflict, but to impose democracy.
Some of this claim, the first part, to be precise, is so often acknowledged it barely requires defense. Most would agree that the claim that the sole goal of NATO’s airstrikes was to protect civilians has descended into the realm of preposterous. The airstrikes continued long after whatever initial threat within Benghazi subsided, and lasted as long as the Transitional National Council has needed them in its effort to take Bani Walid and Surt from Qaddafi loyalists. Can any serious person claim that the latter strikes are about protecting the civilians of Benghazi from imminent slaughter? Gone are the days when NATO would insist that it is not the air wing of the rebel forces, for in its attacks on Qaddafi strongholds it is precisely that.
The second part of the claim, that NATO, and America, are involved to promote democracy, seems to me likewise compelling if not acknowledged quite as often. Usually the description of NATO’s activity, even by sympathizers, is that it, and the United States, are intervening on one side in a civil war. True, in a sense, but no more true than that America’s activity against Hitler was involving itself on one side of an intra-European conflict. If we are to make sense of precisely what led the Obama administration to take the actions it did, if we are to understand America’s ideological and normative commitments (shared by its allies) as they concerned Libya, then we must acknowledge that NATO believed that the rebels were committed democrats, that they enjoyed popular legitimacy, and that democratic imposition was a positive normative goal, albeit one that required broad domestic support. To deny this and to hide behind the claim that the U.S. was only protecting civilians only provides fodder for the conspiratorially minded who, knowing this to be nonsensical, supply far less appealing reasons than the ones I have adduced.
But if one asks precisely why America is so sheepish about her democratic commitments, and why the President goes out of his way to deny that what he has done is impose, and I use the term deliberately, impose democracy (Qaddafi would have won that war in minutes if there was no intervention), then I think the answer must be partly that after the Bush administration’s adventures in Iraq, there is decidedly no appetite for democratic interventions, and hence they must be disguised. But mostly I think it had to do with the fact that international support cannot be had for democracy imposition given so many nondemocratic states, only for genocide avoidance, and hence the fictions erupted. As a legal realist I find no value in the chicanery and the indirection, and would prefer that America simply announce what it did–with domestic support, it brought a brutal, bloody, ugly regime to its knees, and in this I find no shame. But I am not a politician.
The more pertinent question, however, is not so much what America did, but why America only acted in Libya, and not Syria or Bahrain, where again popular support has clearly drained away from thuggish and tyrannical regimes, and where again the tyrants have responded with bullets and fierce repression. And the answer, in a sense, is Qaddafi’s funny hair.
Obviously not only his funny hair. It’s also his ridiculous clothes. His almost comic diatribes. His bizarre state structure. His insane desire to sleep in tents everywhere. His penchant for offending virtually every other state leader on various occasions, in particular in his region. (And if you tell me it was in fact because of his state sponsorship of terrorism, I will tell you your timing is backwards. He sponsored terrorism, and THEN Condi and Clinton visited, not the reverse.)
What that meant was that when the piper came calling, following four decades of misrule, Qaddafi had no friends. Not in the Arab League, which voted in favor of air strikes. Not in the Security Council which unanimously agreed that the International Criminal Court could take action against his regime if it saw fit, and certainly not in NATO. Which meant that this time around, when it came to imposing democracy, as opposed to last time around in Iraq, the U.S. knew it had regional support, it knew it had domestic support, and it knew it had international support, which made democracy imposition easier. And it made it less controversial, because even tyrants were annoyed by their fellow tyrant Qaddafi. So long as the claim was not that democracy was being imposed (an obvious threat to other tyrants), democracy imposition could be tolerated. And so it was, yet in a manner unlikely to be replicated, at least as to world leaders who are not broadly despised or ridiculed. Meaning the lesson is to act and speak relatively normally, and make sure to have a few important friends, and your position as tyrant is relatively safe.
What does this have to do with John Edwards? Well that was international legal enforcement (partly of a criminal nature), and parallels exist in the domestic criminal setting. The fact is that the case against John Edwards strikes me as straining as against the edges of campaign finance law. A rich woman gave John Edwards a great deal of money to hide his affair from his wife. She has not objected to the use of the funds as such, and so the case is not grounded in fraud, for there is none. Rather, the argument is he should have disclosed such funds as a campaign contribution. Why, when it was to hide an affair? Because an affair if disclosed would hurt the campaign, and thus hiding it is in service of the campaign. Under such logic any single expenditure would be a campaign donation, seeing as how a gift from a friend of underwear helps a campaign because nobody votes for a person with smelly underwear. To say nothing of the astonishing obliteration of privacy that is then not just sad reality (which it is) but legal mandate. The entire matter would raise hackles and concerns I think if it were attempted more broadly, but it’s not, any more than there is a universal attempt to impose democracy wherever and whenever it is sought by a people. Rather, it’s being used against a person who is an admitted sleaze, a distasteful person given his personal failures, obviously not a Col. Qaddafi (nor is anyone suggesting he be prosecuted as such), but one for whom few have sympathy. Hence he faces this fate.
I could go on. Larry Craig seems a salient example as well. (Why did it not bother anyone on the left that the police were aggressively hunting down consensual gay sex hookups in bathrooms? Why did it not bother anyone who is a small government conservative that who knows how much tax money was being used to determine that asking for toilet paper is a solicitation for sex? Because Larry Craig was a hypocrite or a sleaze or both depending on your point of view.)
Maybe some of these folks deserve it, Qaddafi certainly deserves whatever comes to him. But the point is not that. The point, obvious stated generally, though obscured in individual cases, is that justice even when it comes is almost never even handed. You’re much better off being well liked if you’re in danger of facing it.