Libya & the Obama “Doctrine”

Why is the United States taking military action in Libya? 

There are acute political massacres in action in Cote d’Ivoire, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. Less acute ones in Zimbabwe, Sudan, etc. An acute, man-made ecological disaster in Japan. We’re involved in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and maybe a third in Pakistan?), all of which perpetuate perception of American neocolonialism in the Arab world, to say nothing of our policies about Israel.

There’s no reason for us to look for a boogie monster in Libya.  Why are we doing it? Well, it’s not one of the regimes with which we have been complicit for 40 years in oppressing democracy. I guess that’s one good reason.

President Obama is taking criticism from the left (“neocolonialism!”) and the right (“Libya is not a strategic interest!”) for his decision to get involved. For what it’s worth, I support military action to prevent an unelected leader unleashing his military on his own people. Calling it a “civil war” elides Qaddafi’s stated intent to treat everyone in Benghazi with no mercy. A civil war implies two military forces wrestling for control of a country or a region; Qaddafi had already used his military against political protesters and planned to “cleanse” Benghazi, which would seem to include civilians who disagree with him:

“From tomorrow you will only find our people. You all go out and cleanse the city of Benghazi…We will track them down, and search for them, alley by alley, road by road, the Libyan people all of them together will be crawling out. Massive waves of people will be crawling out to rescue the people of Benghazi, who are calling out for help, asking us to rescue them.”  – Muammar Qaddafi, 3/17/11
I want to believe that President Obama put America in the coalition to take action in Libya because it was an opportunity to stop the “cleansing” of Benghazi. To do something with the U.S. military that might buy us some goodwill from some portion of the Arab street. (The phrase “Arab street”, of course, assumes a monolithic Arab identity, which has never been true – but that’s a topic for another time!) 

But of course, the reasons I agree with U.S. action in Libya are not quite the same as the reasons we’re actually in Libya:

  1. They’ve never been our ally. We’ve never had a strong relationship with Qaddafi or with Libya, unlike our relationships with Mubarak in Egypt or the Al Khalifa ruling family in Bahrain. Those outdated alliances – with the Saudi family and the Al Khalifa family – are the same reason we’re not exerting more pressure on Bahrain.
  2. The Arab League and a significant portion of the UN were on board. There was also strong multilateral consensus in favor of action, helped in part by the fact that the Arab League doesn’t like Gaddafi much either. Of course the UN consensus was not universal, but it was led by European allies working hard to nudge the U.S. into action.
  3. Humanitarian motivations. Preventing military targeting of civilians counts for something, and it certainly drove the international consensus in favor of action.
  4. The violence was acute, executed by military forces and risked further destabilization of the “Arab Spring” democratic movements. We don’t get involved in plenty of places where leaders are murdering their own people (although I wish we would, collaboratively). Sudan is a pointed example. In those cases, we’ve clearly judged that fulfilling the call of our better angels would not have useful geopolitical outcomes. And that’s unfortunate.

I’ll never know what President Obama really thinks, but the Obama “Doctrine” (not yet articulated as such by Obama himself) seems to be common sense: Take action to do the right thing when complex circumstances permit. It’s a flexible rule, and an imperfect one – but I hope that our willingness to intervene here, where I don’t believe there is a strong U.S. strategic interest, means that Americans will listen to our better angels more often.

It’s of course dangerous territory to assert that the U.S. or an assortment of multilateral organizations can successfully judge when intervention is justified, but I think assessing genocide or military targeting of unarmed civilians does not require a high level of moral authority. I am naive, I know, but the United States spends all this treasure developing a military to deter other super powers; it would be nice to use it to deter genocide, every now and again.

Photo Credit: India Current Affairs

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