Listening to President Obama’s defense of his policy in Libya, you could tell that he is a lawyer. He carefully crafted a case to justify military intervention in Libya specifically, while appearing to rebut criticisms such as inconsistency in his policy with respect to other countries in which the Arab revolt is taking place, failure to consult Congress, the murkiness of the objectives of the intervention, and criticism from both the left (for intervening at all) and the right (for too little, too late, and too brief a commitment). Yet, careful reflection suggests that what he presented was less a general statement of principle we associate with the Monroe, Eisenhower, or Reagan doctrines than a custom-tailored, and not entirely sound, excuse for the instant case.
The overarching theme of his address was that America’s inability to intervene in every pending massacre doesn’t mean it should never intervene. While affirming that he would like to see Gaddafi gone, he insisted that the real objective of this intervention is the protection of innocent civilians. He distinguished the Libyan civilians from those in other countries not by their numbers (far more have been killed in Darfur and the Congo) but by the instability the refugee problem might impose on our ally Egypt. What about the stability problems imposed on that same ally (and others) by the Palestinian refugees and the siege of Gaza or on various other allies by the refugees from Iraq or on Pakistan by the refugees from Afghanistan?
The telling difference between the civilians shot in Libya and the civilians being shot in Bahrain and Syria is that the latter are consistently unarmed while the Libyans sometimes shoot back (or even first). There is absolutely no doubt that the current intervention has the effect of aiding the rebels in their effort to expand their base from the east and take over the whole country. The President took great pride in his position that our intervention is limited and that a broader NATO-based coalition will soon take over. But as Peter Grier has pointed out, “US forces constitute NATO’s backbone – the US pays for 22 percent of NATO’s budget;” so NATO leadership is still American leadership and certainly does not negate American intervention.
The President emphasized that his quick action in this case, quick compared to the delay in military intervention in Bosnia, may have saved many lives. I would argue that there are similarities and differences between Bosnia and Libya, both of which work against the President’s comparison between them. It was the embargo on arms to the Bosnians that cost all those lives, since it prevented the Bosnians from defending themselves against a well-armed oppressor and the current sanctions have now imposed such an embargo on Libya where Gaddafi’s supporters, like those of Miloslavić, are well-armed. The difference is that the since Bosnians sought separation from Serbia seeing Miloslavić as a foreign occupier, while the rebels in the east want to overthrow Gaddafi, not secede from the western part of the country. Also, we knew who the Bosnian separatists were, while the inclinations and affiliations of the Libyan rebels are not clear.
Obama’s claim that he had consulted with bi-partisan leadership of Congress is meaningless. The U.S. Constitution requires official congressional action to engage in acts of war except under specific circumstances that do not apply here. A claim that there is a strategic U.S. interest at stake is insufficient, as Obama himself knows quite well as evidenced by his criticisms of George W. Bush’ s invasion of Iraq. When asked by a Boston Globe reporter on Dec. 20, 2007 when a U.S. President could bomb another country without congressional authority, then Senator Obama (correctly) insisted, “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
The President made much of the fact that he was acting in concert with and at the request of certain European nations and the Arab league. Does anyone believe that
when those same nations and the Arab League demand American action against Israeli aggression he will act upon this “doctrine?” Only last month he ignored their pleas to protect Palestinian civilians from Israeli settlements not with military action, but by the simple act of not vetoing a UN resolution condemning the illegal settlements.
In the end, for all
Mr. Obama’s efforts to be nuanced and comprehensive, by insisting that he has achieved the primary goal of preempting a massacre of civilians and that he will leave it to our allies to take care of the less urgent matters left undone, he has managed to give a speech that, for all its elegant eloquence, is in substance dishearteningly evocative of George W. Bush’s unforgettable but regrettable “mission accomplished speech.”
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute