Monday, August 22, 2011

Libya punditry confounded (Norman Geras)

We all get it wrong sometimes, and (according to Yogi Berra) prediction is hard, especially about the future. But systematic and persistent error, especially when it's delivered in tones of certainty and with pretensions to super-sophisticated understanding, shouldn't immediately be flushed down the memory hole. A few reminders may offer a useful cautionary note, and might even encourage all of us to take such punditry with a grain of salt the next time around. To what extent is it based on serious and informed analysis ... or, perhaps, on some combination of wishful thinking, ideological preconceptions, and/or reflexive sloganeering?

The Wall Street Journal editorial page comes to my mind as I type that, but I'll leave it for another occasion. With respect to Libya, Norman Geras offers some characteristic (and boringly predictable) examples:
With the latest developments in the country suggesting that Libya may soon be free of Colonel Gaddafi's dead hand, it is interesting to recall some of the would-be punditry put out by writers for the Guardian newspaper and Comment is Free regarding the prospects in the wake of Nato's intervention. As recently as 2 August a piece by Simon Jenkins had it that:
Nightly Britain bombs Tripoli. Bar death, what do we achieve?
Back in March Seumas Milne was saying:
But the campaign [Nato's in Libya] is already coming apart.
And in the same month the Guardian itself declared in one of its leader columns:
The moment the US intervenes militarily, even under a UN banner, Gaddafi gets what he wants.
Then there was also the piece, less than a month ago, headlined thus:
Gaddafi is stronger than ever in Libya
OK, so if you're a journalist writing about current events - just like if you're doing it as a blogger, really - then you'll be getting some things wrong. Everyone does sometimes. But it does no harm to remind people of when it happens, especially when there's a suspicion that their own predictions might be in harmony with what they want, or want not, to see happening. [....]
But this sort of commentary wasn't coming only from reflexively "anti-imperialist", anti-American, and/or pro-tyrant precincts on the left (or center-left). Similar pronouncements were also coming from self-styled "realist", outright isolationist, and/or reflexively anti-Obama voices on the right (or center-right).

In fact, the juxtaposition of Simon Jenkins and Seumas Milne in the pages of the Guardian nicely illustrates how conservative and (allegedly) "progressive" versions of pseudo-"realist" hostility against humanitarian intervention can converge. For an example from this side of the Atlantic, Zack Beauchamp at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog came up with this fairly recent gem by the genuinely serious and intelligent (though, in my opinion, often quite wrongheaded) paleo-conservative and foreign-policy "realist" Daniel Larison: Daniel Larison:
"We are no closer to finding a means by which Gaddafi would be forced to 'go' than we were four months ago." - Daniel Larison, July 27th.
And Brian Whitaker, in a thoughtful piece on post-Gaddafi possibilities for Libya (cited by Norm), leads off with this little dig:
As recently as last Friday, Kathleen McFarland, a security analyst at Fox News, was lecturing President Obama on America's "missteps" in Libya.

"Libya and Syria are the textbook examples of why it's important to pick your battles, and then make sure you win the one you pick," she wrote. "President Obama picked the wrong fight by going to war against Libya, and so far is not succeeding."

Just three days later, the Gaddafi regime is almost gone and it's looking as if Obama picked the right battle after all. [....]
He wisely adds:
The real test, though, is further down the line. One year from now, will Libyans be living under a government that is significantly better than the one that tyrannised them for almost 42 years? [....]

At the moment, of course, there's little we can be certain about. But let's hope for the best, stop predicting the worst, and prepare for something in between.
That sounds right to me.

–Jeff Weintraub