Even if toppling Qaddafi made sense on its own terms, the Western campaign will make it far harder to do any good for Syria.
Hillary Clinton speaks to reporters at the United Nations during a Security Council meeting in Syria / AP
The intervention in Libya -- often touted by advocates as a sterling example of how to intervene responsibly in a civil conflict to prevent atrocity -- has largely fallen off the world's radar. Libya is often cited as a case supporting a possible intervention to prevent further atrocity in Syria, but the two are very different, and the comparison ignores what's happened in Libya since Qaddafi's fall.
The intervention in Libya is far from an assured success. Last week fighting broke out in Tripoli between rival militias bickering over a stretch of beach. Some of the many guns Qaddafi mustered to defend his regime have now found their way to Tuareg rebels in Mali, who are busy fomenting another insurgency there. And last month Medicins Sans Frontieres withdrew some of its staff after witnessing act of torture by some of the revolutionaries that the West had supported in ousting the old regime.
Intervention, in other words, has lots of consequences, and often they're quite bad. While it's relatively easy to talk about the problems the intervention has unleashed on Libya itself, even less remarked upon are the broader political consequences of the Libyan campaign. Russia and China, in particular, have openly said they're angry over how the intervention played out, and it should be no surprise to see them block future moves for intervention.
A big reason for Russia and China's intransigence is the NATO coalition that led the intervention, which badly overstepped the range of permissible actions stipulated in the UN Security Council Resolution that authorized intervention. Russia was an early critic of such actions as France's weapons shipments to the rebels -- criticism that could have been accounted for (Moscow never made any secret of its concerns) but which seemed to be ignored in the rush to intervene. President Obama made a rapid transition from saying "regime change is not on the table" last March (part of the bargain to get Russian abstention from the UNSC vote) to publicly calling for his ouster. France and the UK used similar language, ignoring the politics of getting UN approval for intervention.
Now, when there is another escalating crisis in Syria -- Bashar al-Assad's unjustifiable mass-murder of protesters -- Russia and China have stepped in to veto further UNSC action. This was an entirely predictable response, as both Russia and China were openly scornful of the misleading statements made by interventionists in NATO and the Arab League to get support for Libya.
The veto has led some analysts to say the UNSC is losing relevance, but it seems to me that the opposite might actually be true: the politics of the UNSC should matter as much for launching an intervention as the merits of actually attacking the target country. There is no doubt that what is unfolding in Syria is an atrocity that must end. Sadly, the Libya intervention itself, while a precedent for the idea of global action against a humanitarian threat, is also a very real reason that the world will have a tougher time doing anything for Syria.
Walter Russell Mead wrote an excellent exegesis of the entirety of Russia's calculations on the veto, taking special note of Russian domestic politics and their obsession with their own diminishment in international bodies like the UN. Put simply: Russia expected some consideration in the Libyan campaign, but instead the relevant players are actively working against Russian interests there, even post-Gaddafi. Moscow could not risk the same thing happening to its many interests in Syria.
Even if it were not an election year in Russia, where Putin has just been reminded that he does not enjoy uncritical love from his people, it's likely Russia would have vetoed Syria because of Libya. But there are additional, bigger politics to consider as well.
Many states, none of whom are free, worry that the West's renewed love of intervention might one day be focused upon them. This is a critical consequence of rejecting sovereignty and declaring governments unfit to rule through a mixture of expediency and opportunity. Powerful states with poor human rights records -- Russia and China included -- look at what happened in Libya and see disaster, not freedom. And they are taking steps to avoid it.
In a broader sense, too, the renewed focus on intervention, especially considering what happened in Libya, could have pernicious consequences. Qaddafi famously gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003. That he was later overthrown right after the U.S. re-established diplomatic ties with Triploi isn't broadly seen as a victory for diplomacy and denuclearization, but rather a textbook case of why nuclear weapons are fantastic invasion insurance. That may be one reason (among many others) why Iran seems so unwilling to contemplate abandoning its own nuclear weapons program -- it believes that nuclear weapons will prevent a capricious and unpredictable West from invading or intervening in its internal affairs.
In a vacuum, intervening to prevent mass killings in Libya made sense. Libya, however, did not (and does not) exist in a vacuum. It has both internal and regional politics. So does Syria. The failure to gain international buy-in to do something -- not necessarily militarily but some response -- to the atrocities there is a direct consequence of interventionists ignoring politics in their rush to do good. Unfortunately, the people of Syria are now paying the price, and will continue to do so.
Most presidents view inaugural addresses as a rare opportunity to appeal beyond “the base.” This was base-only.
For my sins, I have read every U.S. presidential inaugural address ever given, and played a small part in writing one of them—Jimmy Carter’s, delivered 40 years ago today.
The first one I remember hearing, John F. Kennedy’s in 1961, I saw on a fuzzy black-and-white TV from my 7th-grade American history classroom in California. The arctic conditions that day in Washington practically radiated through the TV screen. I remember seeing the revered 87-year-old poet Robert Frost hunch against the wind and squint in the low-sun glare as he tried to read the special inaugural ode he had composed. Then Richard Nixon, just defeated by Kennedy in a hair’s-breadth race, reached across to block the glare with his top hat. Frost waved him off and began reciting from memory one of his best-known poems, “The Gift Outright.”
Donald Trump will take the oath of office on Friday, becoming the 45th president of the United States.
Donald Trump takes the oath of office on Friday, to become the 45th president of the United States.
The day’s inaugural festivities will get underway in the morning and continue through Saturday. The swearing-in ceremony, which will take place outside of the Capitol, is expected to begin at 11:30 a.m., followed by an inaugural parade at 3 p.m. and inaugural balls in the evening.
Thousands of attendees are expected to descend on Washington, DC for the ceremonies, which will likely be met with celebration and protest. We’ll bring you the latest updates from the nation’s capital as events unfold. Also see our continuing coverage:
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
On January 20, 2017, the peaceful transfer of American power took place in Washington, DC, as Barack Obama, passed the office to Donald J. Trump.
On January 20, 2017, the peaceful transfer of American power took place in Washington, DC, as the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama passed the office to President-elect Donald J. Trump. Hundreds of thousands attended the ceremony, gathering in the National Mall to hear the swearing in and Trump’s inaugural address, while groups of protesters clashed with police in some of Washington’s streets. President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and their wives then bid farewell to former President Obama and his wife, as the Obamas headed to Air Force One for one last flight.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
Commentators love to praise the peaceful handover of power—but this year, it stands as a reminder of the system’s fragility and shortcomings.
Every presidency is different, but inaugural coverage is always the same. Commentators congratulate Americans on the peaceful transition of power and intone solemn sentences about democratic renewal.
There is something unnerving about these reassurances, something overstated, even hysterical. When a British prime minister loses the confidence of the House of Commons and must suddenly trundle out of 10 Downing Street (as some six dozen of them have done since the job was invented in the 1740s; a few more than once), nobody marvels on television how wonderful it is that he or she doesn’t try to retain power by force of arms. Nobody in Denmark thinks it extraordinary when one party relinquishes power to another. Ditto New Zealand or Switzerland—all of them treat peaceful transfers of power as the developed world norm, like reliable electricity or potable water.
From the nosebleed section of the National Mall, Donald Trump’s supporters watched his inauguration with high hopes for his presidency.
Friday’s inauguration ceremony was the calm after the storm.
The crowd on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall could have easily turned into one last Trump campaign rally, with thousands of red-topped supporters screaming for their leader and boo-hissing any Democrat spotted on the Jumbotrons.
But the mood inside the security barricades was affable, a byproduct, perhaps, of collective exhaustion from the hassle of navigating through security lines. Or perhaps Trump’s supporters simply realized they didn’t need to shout anymore. After all, they’d already won.
“I feel amazing. I feel like this is Christmas,” Josh Hammaker, a Trump voter from Calvert County, Maryland, told me in the minutes before the ceremony began. Hammaker considers himself a Democrat, but broke for Trump in November. “This is the best day of my life.” Or, at least, “one of ‘em. We’re finally getting our country back.”
Recent presidential installation ceremonies have been studiously planned and free of major disasters. It hasn’t always been so.
With malice toward none. The only thing we have to fear. Ask what you can do for your country.
Presidential inaugurations will, at their best, inspire their audiences—not just in their respective moments, but for decades and centuries to come. But presidential inaugurations are also run by people, which means that, sometimes, they will go extremely wrong. Sometimes, it will be protests that will mar the best-planned ceremonies. Sometimes, it will be human pettiness (as when President Hoover, riding with Franklin Roosevelt in the motorcade to the Capitol in 1932, seems to have ignored Roosevelt’s attempts at conversation, instead staring stone-faced into the distance). Sometimes, however, inaugural exercises will encounter disasters of a more epic strain: storms, illness, death, extremely pungent cheese.
The new president borrowed from the bleak, fiery tone of his presidential campaign, but said his election represented the ascension of the people over politicians in Washington.
President Donald Trump took office on Friday with an inaugural address that was striking for both its bleakness and its fiery, populist promises for a better future.
“Today we are not transferring power not from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people,” the 45th president said.
Reciting a litany of horribles including gangs, drugs, crime, poverty, and unemployment, Trump told the nation, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
The inaugural address was unusually dark and political, delivered in a forum where new presidents have tended to reach for a language of unity, positivity, and non-partisanship. In many ways, the speech drew directly from the tone and approach of Trump’s often very-negative campaign rally speeches, once again showing that the “pivot” many observers have long expected Trump to make toward a more unifying and detached tone, is not coming. President Trump so far looks much the same as candidate Trump, and his speech was a strange milestone in a strange rise to power, one that was viewed as impossible just months ago.