Let me explain what I mean. A Middle Eastern despot now knows for sure when his time in power is well and truly up. He knows it when his bankers in Zurich or Geneva cease accepting his transfers and responding to his confidential communications and instead begin the process of "freezing" his assets and disclosing their extent and their whereabouts to investigators in his long-exploited country. And, at precisely that moment, the U.S. government also announces that it no longer recognizes the said depositor as the duly constituted head of state. Occasionally, there is a little bit of "raggedness" in the coordination. CIA Director Leon Panetta testified to Congress that Hosni Mubarak would "step down" a day before he actually did so. But the whole charm of the CIA is that its intelligence-gathering is always a few beats off when compared with widespread general knowledge. Generally, though, the White House and the State Department have their timepieces and reactions set to Swiss coordinates.
This is not merely a matter of the synchronizing of announcements. The Obama administration also behaves as if the weight of the United States in world affairs is approximately the same as that of Switzerland. We await developments. We urge caution, even restraint. We hope for the formation of an international consensus. And, just as there is something despicable about the way in which Swiss bankers change horses, so there is something contemptible about the way in which Washington has been affecting—and perhaps helping to bring about—American impotence. Except that, whereas at least the Swiss have the excuse of cynicism, American policy manages to be both cynical and naive.
Apparently Hitchens believes that the U.S. can simply issue a decree and will dictators out of office. This makes perfect sense if you’re the kind of person who believes the only thing between you and your playboy life in the French Riviera is a matter of will; to the rest of the world, however, it makes…rather less sense, namely that dictators are allowed to order people about even though the U.S. thinks they shouldn’t. Hitchens probably recognizes this, as he says:
Libya is—in point of population and geography—mainly a coastline. The United States, with or without allies, has unchallengeable power in the air and on the adjacent waters. It can produce great air lifts and sea lifts of humanitarian and medical aid, which will soon be needed anyway along the Egyptian and Tunisian borders, and which would purchase undreamed-of goodwill. It has the chance to make up for its pointless, discredited tardiness with respect to events in Cairo and Tunis. It also has a president who has shown at least the capacity to deliver great speeches on grand themes. Instead, and in the crucial and formative days in which revolutions are decided, we have had to endure the futile squawkings of a cuckoo clock.
I’m not sure what, exactly, Hitchens wants—bomb the hell out of Libya, enforce a no-fly zone or ferry in supplies—which is an awfully convenient stance for someone criticizing someone else for not acting enough. Whatever it is, it’s probably too much: because while the U.S. has goals and the U.S. also has the capabilities to perform actions, there’s no guarantee that the actual actions will result in the intended goals. Hitchens believes whatever it is he wants the U.S. to do over there will win the U.S. quite a bit of goodwill, which is certainly a kind of fuzzy thinking; on the other hand, showing force often alienates just as often as it attracts. You invade or bomb or whatever, and things become complicated because it’s war and things necessarily become complicated, and that means collateral damage, and people might quite reasonably wonder why the U.S. had to intervene in the first place. Things, they might wonder, seemed to be going fairly well in the meantime. People criticized Obama for not doing anything in Tunisia; the country seems to be doing fairly well now. People criticized Obama for not doing anything in Egypt; again, the country seems to be doing fairly well, all things considered. At no point have people considered the constructive power of doing absolutely nothing and letting a people united figure out their own affairs. Now perhaps things will turn out badly, but that might have happened had we imposed our weight on them; unless you’re proposing an indefinite occupation to keep things, Iraq-like, perched on the edge between an unsatisfactory order and messy chaos, your proposal doesn’t work.
Just because you have the weight of an elephant doesn’t mean every problem should be crushed.