Wherein Freddie DeBoer Calls Me Names

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 23 2011 @ 1:24pm

Benghazi celebration

by Zack Beauchamp

So apparently Mr. DeBoer did not appreciate some of my posts yesterday. I won't engage with the ad hominem invective that makes up the bulk of the post, except to note to the irony that in a post consumed by casting aspersions on my background and my ability to care for the welfare of Libyans he has the gall to call one of my posts "uncommonly terrible." I suppose I should clarify, for the record, that I am not related to Tina Brown (though that would be cool, as I could probably afford better groceries), nor am I a True Blood character (though if Freddie would like to lobby Alan Ball to name one after me, I'd be happy to go visit the set with him).

However, there are two arguments in his piece about yesterday's Von Hoffman awards that I would like to engage with, as I think Freddie is quite wrong on both points.

First, he argues that this award to Matt Yglesias misunderstands Matt's arguments about strategic airpower:

Now, far be it from me to make Yglesias's argument for him. In fact, I don't have to, as he's written on strategic air power on several occasions. Not in short, off-the-cuff quotes of news reports like what is linked to here, but in substantive posts– the kind with actual arguments that you actually have to rebut, rather than hide behind a fatuous and tired awards gimmick and the considerable institutional authority of a blog whose reputation you've done nothing to build. Here's a briefer one regarding Iraq and the fact that the media-ready good appearances of lower US casualties meant little for achieving the strategic aims of the Iraq campaign. If I would put my own gloss on it, I would say that Matt consistently argues that strategic air power is fine for blowing shit up but very limited in achieving the large host of strategic and diplomatic goals we tend to have in foreign affairs. That attitude has not been remotely challenged by recent events. Blowing the shit out of Qaddafi's military is the easy part. Building a democratic society, a humanitarian success, and a functioning post-Qaddafi civic infrastructure is what actually matters.

Now Matt has made that argument in other places, but it doesn't follow that he's making an identical argument here. Here's Matt's post in full, as part of Freddie's critique is I that took a misleading excerpt:

Strategic Air Power Still Doesn’t Really Work

By Matthew Yglesias on Jun 15, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Will air power advocates ever learn?

Almost three months into the campaign of air strikes, Britain and its Nato allies no longer believe bombing alone will end the conflict in Libya, well-placed government officials have told the Guardian.

No surprise to anyone who’s seen this movie before, but apparently when you get put in charge of military aircraft all recollection of history vanishes.

Now it should be clear from that excerpt that Matt's endorsing the Guardian article's argument that "bombing alone" will not end the Libya conflict as evidence for one of his own claim about air power. And the Guardian authors don't mean by that "bombing won't be able to produce a just post-war order" – they mean NATO will not be able to produce a military solution. From the next two paragraphs after the one Matt quotes:

Instead, they are pinning their hopes on the defection of Muammar Gaddafi's closest aides, or the Libyan leader's agreement to flee the country.

"No one is envisaging a military victory," said one senior official who echoed Tuesday's warnings by Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, head of the navy, that the bombing cannot continue much beyond the summer.

Read the whole article yourself. There's only one mention of the post-war period, and it's certainly not talking about the ability of strategic bombing to acheive important strategic objectives like "building a democratic society." By citing THAT article approvingly as evidence that air power advocates are wrong about some cliam, Matt is making the claim that NATO's bombing will not produce a pure military victory in LIBYA. That specific prediction turned out to be wrong, hence the Von Hoffman.

(As an aside, several readers have written in to say Matt shouldn't have been eligible – Libya was tactical bombing, not strategic bombing. I'll post one of those emails later today.)

Freddie also takes issue with the award given to Larison:

Larison is here reacting to an actual overture made by the actual Libyan rebels, which seemed then and seems now like a curious and out of character move that suggested conflicting principles within that organization. This post (which is about a month old) is trying to make some sense of a rebel movement which has at times operated in the peculiar way that large, shaggy, and complex military groups do when they lack clear leadership, unanimity of principles, and clearly articulated political goals. Now, I wouldn't put this particular maneuver on equal footing with their history of assassinating one of their own generals or targeting sub-Saharan Africans as Qaddafi's mercenaries without evidence (little bits of nuance that escape the commentary of Mr. Beauchamp), but I think Daniel had a right to read about this information and question their capacity to take Tripoli, or even their will to.

I have no issue with "trying to make sense" of the rebels' organization, but it's analytically distinct from making predictions about how the war would turn out. And of course Larison had a "right" to making his prediction, but that was never in question. It has turned out that he was quite wrong. Von Hoffman Awards are given solely to indicate "stunningly wrong" predictions, not bad analysis. It turned out to be "stunningly wrong" to say "We are no closer to finding a means by which Gaddafi would be forced to 'go' than we were four months ago." As it happened, we had already found a means – military operations.

It's also not like the correct prediction was impossible at the time. Joshua Goldstein, though wrong on the timeframe, got the mechanics of the conflict right. Marc Lynch was spot on. Hell, even little 'ol me was closer to right than Larison. It was possible to read the evidence at the time and think we were, in fact, closer to finding a way to oust Qaddafi than we were four months ago. Given that Larison had repeatedly called Libya a "stalemate," among other things, I felt it was justified to point out that his predictions were quite wrong. That quote was a convenient way for me to do so.

Now, I know I'm new to blogging, so I don't mean to be stepping on anyone's toes or calling anyone an idiot. Far from it – I'm criticizing three very smart, very keen observers here! The intent is merely to explain my initial rationale and why I think Freddie's critique was off-base. Without any namecalling.

(Photo of celebratory fireworks in Benghazi during the rebel entry into Tripoli via Flickr user Tom[le]Chat.)