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Charlie Sheen, U.S. Power and Libya

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

There's so much to love about Charlie Sheen's diatribes that about the only improvement I can think of would be to have Jean-Claude Van Damme be the one interviewing him. Obscured by the spectacle of Sheen's crash-and-burn party are some very serious critiques of the consensus drug treatment paradigm in the U.S. But there are also some very important insights into U.S. foreign policy and national security. In particular, Sheen's remarks, which I'm tempted to refer to as the Sheen Doctrine, illustrate one tendency prevalent on the left and another prevalent on the right, while succinctly articulating a major tenet of U.S. military doctrine that will likely come into play in Libya.

1. The Blink Cure: "I have cleansed myself," Sheen said in one interview. "I closed my eyes and in a nanosecond, I cured myself." He subsequently phrased it somewhat differently: "I blinked and I cured my brain." Whether it's the euphoria following the election of Barack Obama as president or the painful lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, the left's search for an instantaneous cure for America's past abuses of power is a recurring one. Unfortunately, true recovery occurs not with the first blink, but with all the subsequent blinks that follow. For now, the Obama administration has demonstrated an admirable discipline in the face of calls -- in Iran in 2009 and currently, in Libya -- for a more assertive approach to the domestic affairs of foreign countries. But staying clean requires an ongoing effort -- that is, an endless series of blinks -- especially when there's a ready supply of one's drug of choice. American power might be in relative decline, but there's still plenty to make the temptation to use it a constant struggle.

2. The One-Speed Gearbox. "I have one speed," Sheen said, "I have one gear: Go!" Whether it's in regard to Iran, Honduras, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon, not to mention North Korea, China, Venezuela and at times Brazil, the right has one speed: Go! On all fronts, Obama has been too slow, too weak, too cautious. For the right, American power is a hybrid vehicle that can take corners with blinding speed while also steamrolling all adversaries. Most remarkably, no maintenance is required, and quite unlike just about anything else in the real world of today, the parts are all American made. I initially misquoted this pearl to Kari as, "I've got one speed: Bam!" And I think that the misquote might even be a more accurate reflection of this thought pattern on the right. This is the temptation of power that the Blink Cure must resist. The problem is that sometimes blinking is a cure, but sometimes it is, indeed, a sign of weakness. The challenge is to know the difference.

3. The F-18 Paradox. "I'm an F-18, bro," said Sheen. "And I will destroy you in the air. I will deploy my ordinance to the ground." Had Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoken these words, or words to the same effect, it would have been the object of very smart analysis about the nature of American military power in future conflicts. How do I know this? Because Gates recently did just that, confirming that Sheen has his finger on the pulse of American military doctrine: Air power and sea-based access, and not ground war, are the keys to any potential great power conflict. The paradox arises from the fact that, as the events in Libya illustrate, the need for nation-building missions will not necessarily decline just because America has been vaccinated against them by Iraq and Afghanistan. What's more, those nation-building efforts -- again, as illustrated by Libya, and in particular China's massive evacuation operation of its nationals -- will be very relevant to great power politics, even if they won't necessarily qualify as proxy wars. As I mentioned previously, we still have not resolved the very difficult problem represented by when and how to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state that has not attacked us or anyone else. We can't afford to do nation-building, but we can't afford not to do it, either.

As noted above, we're already seeing all the elements of the Sheen Doctrine coming into play with regard to Libya, and I suspect that will only increase as events unfold. Even before the Libya uprising grew bloody, I found myself thinking that Obama, to put it in an admittedly crude formulation, needs to whack a little guy -- to gain the freedom of action that Ronald Reagan accomplished with Grenada, George H.W. Bush with Panama and George W. Bush with the initial success in Afghanistan. That temptation is a strong one for any American president, and even more so for Obama given the rotten hand -- or, more accurately, handcuffs -- he inherited on Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan.

Libya represents the lowest-hanging fruit to come along so far, until you take a closer look -- until, that is, you blink away the temptation. The mistake that critics of the much-discussed no-fly zone in Libya are making, though, is to assume that such an intervention would be designed to keep the conflict from escalating. The flaw of the no-fly zone isn't a bug. It's a feature. And if the decision is taken to implement one, it will in all likelihood represent Obama's Grenada moment.

The problem will arise afterward, when the F-18 Paradox once again forces us to confront the fact that, sometimes, the only thing worse than doing nothing is doing something. Unless, of course, it's one of those times when it's the reverse.