More than even Afghanistan and Iraq, the profile of 21st century conflict is represented by Libya.  A civil war involving the overthrow of a dictator by indigenous forces, in a nation rich with oil, in which the oil-consuming Atlantic nations intervene militarily to prevent the dictator from slaughtering his own people.  Meanwhile, those same nations are not intervening on behalf of indigenous uprisings in Bahrain, which also has oil, and Yemen.  These latter two countries have been much more helpful to us than Libya has.

There is every indication that some Libyans rising up against Ghaddafi are also anti-American, possibly to the point of supporting terrorism.  We don’t know whether this is true in Libya or elsewhere because we had not developed intelligence on the Arab “street”.  Sound confusing?  It should. 

Conflict in this century will make 20th century nation-state wars, against imperialists, fascists, and communists, look simple by comparison.  Good guys versus bad guys.  But what principles do we use to decide on intervention where neither side threatens us, where both sides or all sides may be unpleasant guys, where one side or both sides don’t wear uniforms, and where clear moral authority is not possessed by anyone?  This new century of conflict is going to be much more grey and plaid than black and white.

It is to be hoped that we don’t simply decide to use military force by the toss of a coin.  That would be a prescription for willy-nilly arbitrariness honored by no one.  So far, the only positive development in the Libyan arena is the rare leadership shown by Britain and France.  They seem to have forced our hand.  But that is not all bad.  I have believed for quite some time that other democratic nations had to step up on peace making and peace keeping.  We can’t and shouldn’t try to do it all.  Let’s hope this new spirit of shared responsibility expands. 

Even so, we are all going to need a new set of consistent and defensible principles on when and how to intervene in the affairs of other nations.

12 Responses to “The Face of 21st Century Conflict”

  1. Gary Hart: The Face of 21st-Century Conflict | InsureMeNot | PPI & MPPI Refunds, Mis-sold policies, Bank & Credit Card Charges Refund, Mortgages & Endowments Tips Says:

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  2. Andy Says:

    What is difficult for me to understand is under what conditions do we apply our principles. It would be easy if we were consistent in the defending (or in most cases projecting) our philosophy and ideals and yet we are selective in our actions. Why are we in Libya when there are plenty of rebels to support in other dictatorships?

    Clearly, when you have financial and political constraints we can’t be everywhere, doing everything. Gray and plaid. We have shifted from acting upon our ideals in every case to selective situations that support our national interest. This has ramifications on how we look internationally (and therefore our position globally).

  3. Debbie Lackowitz Says:

    Hey. Interesting post. Life and decisions ARE more complicated in this relatively new century. Which means we HAVE to be more flexible. Yeah. Move, stop on a dime as it were. And YES we can’t (and shouldn’t) be doing this alone. The choices are no longer either/or anymore. It’s more like an If…Then statement. Scary? You BET it is. And the consequences are NOT foreseen either! The younger you are, the easier it is to adapt. I believe that President Obama has that. He’s just gonna turn 50 this August. But even HE doesn’t seem that adept at times. Look at Egypt. He seemed to be playing ‘catch up’. And he WAS. Cause events were happening SO quickly, that it’s absurd to think you can deal with it in real time. As the Right was so quick to say. Yeah, maybe if he was 30. But he’s NOT. President Obama is definitely NOT past it by any means! It’s just the perception. I followed the events daily. And was surprised how quickly things moved. And I was impressed with how the WH dealt with it. Sorry Fox and Friends, YOU didn’t ‘get it’ at ALL! Conflicts are being played by very different rules in the 21st Century. Nebulous is a good word for it. And as for our Leaders? Perhaps we should be thinking YOUNGER vs OLDER? The old standards (wisdom is gained by age for example) I am starting to think don’t apply any more. Ageism? No, I don’t think so. I just look @ my 23 year old daughter and see how adept she is. Multi tasking. My head spins! Not that I can’t do it. For her, it’s just so easy! That’s my point!

  4. Trevor Burrowes Says:

    I think we have to finally understand that our future depends on us becoming the world nation that we inherently are. This requires that we identify better with all nations, wanting for them what they want for themselves, and not obstructing their progress towards it. This requires extraordinary subtlety, compassion and proactivity–not traits common to the realpolitik outlook of recent times. USAID might need to supercede the State Department.

  5. John Donovan Says:

    Our default option should be not to intervene. It’s amazing to me how we manage to stay in a state of war on many fronts and the military budget keeps rising and rising long after our major adversary, the Soviets, have vanished as a threat. This is a matter that has moved me out of the Republican party and into the ranks of liberals in the area of foreign policy. If Eisenhower could see the power of the military-industrial complex today, I think he would make his warnings much more urgent than they were before.

  6. Tom Gee Says:

    Senator, you have introduced here another of the kind of thought-provoking and earth-shaking discussions for which you are well-known. I think the beginnings of this discussions took place at American University in 1963 as President Kennedy laid out the first stages of a rethinking of our role in the world. Of course, that kind of thinking needs to have evolved in the almost half-century since then, as your writings and teachings clearly demonstrate, but the basic concept still applies, in my opinion. In the interest of brevity, that JFK speech extolled the concept of inter-dependence; a concept that may have evolved into a new one, yet to be coined — inter-independence

  7. The Face of 21st Century Conflict | Matters of Principle « Tenacious Says:

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  8. Vigilante Says:

    We’ve already blown $100,000,000 in ordinance in Libya. Let’s get out of the two other medieval moonscape wars & occupation, for which we’re borrowing from China, before we invest in Libyan liberation.

  9. Brian Jordan Says:

    Gary, thank you for blogging again – I was an active member of your community of thought and discourse in 2002-2003. It inspired then, at the root of my being – as I had been in the 80s. Inspiration through thought, through heart and being is a blessing.

    Again – thank you.

  10. SOH Says:

    None of our post-cold war presidents have articulated a clear role for the US in the world as Wilson had done a century ago, or as Monroe did 2 centuries ago. Those principles governed our approach to diplomacy and conflict for generations. Not since Kissinger have we had a secretary of state capable of thinking in such terms, and we most certainly do not have that today. In a multi-polar world, with ‘terrorism’ a non governmental threat being labeled our #1 security problem, it’s time for some grownup thinking in the White House and State Dept. Both our allies and our adversaries would benefit from it. I disagree with Debbie (above). It’s because things happen so fast that the Government must be able to identify its interests, and describe why they are interests, and project how we will defend them (sanctions or military force) before they are threatened.

  11. Gary Hart Says:

    I agree very much with Andy and SOH about the need for basic principles to form a coherent framework, especially where and when we use force, rather than the ad-hocery that has characterized our interventions (or lack thereof) since the end of the Cold War. I may disagree with SOH on Kissinger who, it seems to me at least, replaced historic Constitutional principles with so-called European “realpolitik”, a fancy word for pursuing your “interests” whether power, oil, or commercial and political advantage at all costs to moral authority.

  12. Jim Engelking Says:

    To date, no one has identified an overriding national interest that compels us to undertake military action in Lybia. The President has failed to fully inform the American people; he has failed fully inform our elected representatives. Perhaps he will tardily do so tonight, but I doubt it. Why do we the people allow this? Why do we not demand a full accounting of CIA invlovement in Lybia? A full identification of the roles of other nations and actions taken to control the internal affairs of that nation? What truth do we fear? That access to oil in other nations drives our foreign policy? That we will do whatever it takes to keep the oil flowing for our consumption? Who are these so-called rebels? And the day after?

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