Obama in Libya: The Horror! The Horror!

03/31/2011 06:55 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2011

I never thought I'd quote from Heart of Darkness to take issue with a black guy.

Then I listened earlier this week to President Barack Obama's speech on the Libyan intervention. My thoughts kept drifting to Joseph Conrad's unforgettable description of a late-nineteenth century colonialist warship shelling the African coastline.

"In the empty immensity of earth, sky and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent," Conrad wrote. "Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech -- and nothing happened. Nothing could happen."

Obama took office with unprecedented international goodwill. For his supporters, one of his most appealing qualities was that he considered himself "a fellow citizen of the world" and wanted to initiate "a new era of engagement" with said world.

For the first time in history, an American president could visit North Africa and talk about his African roots, his Arabic name and his childhood years spent in Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country on earth. The hope was that Obama's worldly perspective would enable him to mend America's long-strained relationship with the region.

But it's starting to look as if Obama has gone native, seemingly losing touch with the pulse of the world while becoming increasingly convinced of America's self-evident benevolence.

Obama's speech on Monday offered two distinct justifications for the military intervention: preventing a massacre and protecting America's interests.

Muammar Gaddafi is a bad mother, no question: He has oppressed his own people for more than four decades, during which time he has killed dissidents both at home and abroad.

But that doesn't make him unique. Libya is only one of 23 or so tyrannies around the globe, and accounts for only five million of the approximately 1.9 billion people living under dictatorship.

As we speak, autocratic states such as Yemen and Syria are similarly using violence to suppress uprisings. Why isn't America sending Tomahawk missiles their way?

Humanitarianism is by definition non-political. Yet when a country is providing you with oil, like the United Arab Emirates, or owns your debt, like China, the trend is to pay lip service to democratic values but otherwise turn a blind eye.

For example, Saudi Arabia is America's number-one Middle East chum -- a relationship currently less strained than the Obama administration's relationship with Israel, despite the fact that Israeli women can become prime minister while Saudi women can't drive.

And several members of the Arab League, whose support for America's Libya campaign Obama referenced in his speech, are among the absolute worst human rights violators on earth.

Call this realpolitik if you like, but much of the rest of the world sees it as self-interested imperialism.

So what then of Obama's claim that the Libyan move reflects American interests? And, more simply, what does Obama mean by "interests"?

It's hard to say. He doesn't mean economic interests, since the United States doesn't import much of its oil from Libya. Nor does he mean national security interests, since Libya hasn't posed a tangible threat to the United States in decades.

So we're just left with the American interest in seeing stability in the region.

Yet if promoting stability is the priority, why support a largely undefined opposition in a civil war?

Two things we can expect: The civil war will be bloodier and produce more refugees than what Gaddafi had in mind, and supporting a rebel insurgency that includes al Qaeda and Hezbollah isn't improving security for anybody.

America may see itself as the global leader and liberator, but Gaddafi and most of the Arab world see America's and the West's incessant meddling in African and Middle Eastern affairs within the context of imperialism.

They have a point. While Obama trumpeted the fact that the intervention in Libya has coalition support, it is important to remember that several of those NATO partners -- notably Italy, France and the United Kingdom -- have occupied and/or controlled most of North Africa during Gaddafi's own lifetime. As recently as the 1980s, the CIA sponsored anti-Gaddafi groups in hopes of staging a coup d'état and, in 1986, the United States bombed Gaddafi's palace in an attempt to kill him and his family.

Despite Obama's pledge not to dispose of Gaddafi by force, regime change is the goal. Before George W. Bush and Iraq, America rarely undertook the task of deposing despots but rather recruited, financed and armed opposing factions and let them do the dirty work. The Libyan intervention is a throwback to the old pre-Iraq ways.

Ultimately, it becomes clear that Obama's most credible justification for intervening in Libya is identical to Bush's tug-at-the-heart justification for the invasion of Iraq, which is: the leader is killing his own people!

At least we can be grateful that the air raids and missile strikes have produced only a hundred or so Libyan deaths thus far rather than hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq, and that Obama's refusal to commit ground troops should further limit casualties. But this is the same paternal Western reflex to sculpt the rest of the world.

Conrad at his greatest: "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

The hope was that things would finally change when the first black man was elected de facto leader of the West.

I can think of at least one thing that has changed since Heart of Darkness was written: Rather than shells from six-inch guns, the projectiles now cost $1.2 million apiece and fall from 15,000 feet in the air.

Still firing into a continent. Still incomprehensible.