Friday, March 18, 2011

Could Libya Become Obama's Iraq?

Today, Barack Obama made a speech regarding the use of American military force in Libya to protect the civilians of the North African country, who have been subject to violent repression from Moammar Qaddafi and his loyalist forces. In it, the president promises some big-ticket items—namely the "protection of civilians in Libya." Listening to the speech I got some flashbacks to the lead-up to the Iraq War at the beginning of the millennium.

The parallels begin with the classic pre-war rhetoric of the "international community." In the case of Saddam, George W. Bush made the case that the Iraqi leader could not care less what the world thought of him and his actions, saying in his 2003 State of the Union Address: "Almost three months ago, the United Nations Security Council gave Saddam Hussein his final chance to disarm. He has shown instead his utter contempt for the United Nations, and for the opinion of the world."

Similarly, Obama today said about Moammar Qaddafi, "Ample warning was given that Qaddafi needed to stop his campaign of repression, or be held accountable.  The Arab League and the European Union joined us in calling for an end to violence. Once again, Qaddafi chose to ignore the will of his people and the international community."

Obama used another pre-war keyword: accountability. Today he said that, "Our focus has been clear: protecting innocent civilians within Libya, and holding the Qaddafi regime accountable." This is not the first time "accountability" has been one of the reasons used to urge military force against a dictator. On March 16, 2003 Dick Cheney told Tim Russert that "Now, with all due respect to the French, if you look back at their track record, they have consistently opposed efforts to hold Saddam Hussein accountable for his actions."

John Kerry used the accountability schtick back in 2004 when he was running for president, defending his vote to authorize use of force in Iraq on Meet the Press by telling Tim Russert, "I supported the notion that we must as a country hold Saddam Hussein accountable for what he was doing."

My question is this: why, all of a sudden, must we hold Qaddafi accountable? Why did we not hold him accountable following the Lockerbie bombing? Or when its perpetrator got a hero's welcome after being released by the British back in 2009? Are we really to believe that, up until the people of Libya tried to overthrow Qaddafi, the Western powers thought that he was a legitimate ruler incapable of these atrocities?

Additionally, the threat of military actions if UN resolutions are not met is nothing new. One of the main justifications for Iraq was Saddam Hussein's continual flouting of measures put upon his regime by the UN.  The key phrase here is "non-negotiable." Obama said, "Let me be clear, these terms are not negotiable." The terms he is referring to regard humanitarian aspects of life—from the cessation of attacks on civilians to everyday items like electricity and water.

Rewind to October 2002, when then-President Bush said the following in Cincinnati in a speech about Iraq: "America believes that all people are entitled to hope and human rights, to the non-negotiable demands of human dignity."

Obama's speech itself also had inherent contradictions. Ezra Klein at the Washington Post made an excellent point when he tweeted, "If Libya collapses into chaos and tribal warfare, how do we protect civilians but not send in ground troops?" If our goal—which Obama made very clear—is to protect Libyan civilians and we cannot do that via air power, what will the administration do? Re-neg on its promise to the Libyan people, or re-neg on its promise to the American people?

Klein made another great point in yet another tweet, talking about Obama's statement, "And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal -- specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya." One major issue that American foreign policy has faced in the past decade is a lack of definition of important terms like "victory." George W. Bush's assertion of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq simply underscores the point.

Beyond all of this, there is another issue that military action in Libya will create. With the precedent set of American military power entering North African/Middle Eastern countries that are not direct threats to American sovereignty, where will it end? Which countries will be "graced" with an American military presence and which will be left to their dictators' whims? Do the developments in Yemen and Bahrain warrant American military action? What makes Libya so special in our protection of its civilians?

While Obama may believe that American military action in Libya is good for the international community, it is important to remember that George W. Bush thought the same thing about invading Iraq. The justifications both have been highlighting—dangerous leaders shunning the international community, holding dictators accountable, non-negotiable human rights—are eerily similar. And before people say that Obama is very different from Bush, I would agree only when it comes to domestic matters. But when it comes to foreign policy—Guantanamo detainee treatment and Pakistani predator drones especially—to me they're quite similar. They share a Secretary of Defense, to boot.

I hope I am wrong, and there is plenty of things that can happen between now and a ground war in Libya. We are nowhere near the "point of no return." The justifications being used, however, for military action in Libya seem to mirror those used for military action in Iraq. Say what you want about Libya being different from Iraq; the problem is that I seem to have heard it all before.

1 comment:

  1. Obama = GWB (have they ever been seen together?)

    Another military action related to oil supply, Gitmo still open, unions being busted on his watch.

    Libya military is so pathetic the French are willing to take them on. Obama should encourage the French (of course we run the risk of the French losing to Libya).