Perhaps because Barack Obama ran for president as a critic of George Bush’s war policy, defenders of the administration have had to work hard to articulate the difference between Obama’s recent decision to enter the civil war in Libya and Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Representative of this approach was a recent staff editorial in the University of Michigan’s Michigan Daily:
For the third time since 2001, the United States is using military force against a country in the Middle East. But unlike our decision to invade Iraq, which was condemned by the international community, the Libyan intervention has the support of the United Nations and is being led by a coalition of nations, not all of whom are traditional allies of the U.S. Most importantly, this operation is a limited one. . . .
Intervention in Libya was the right choice. Gaddafi is a violent dictator who has used his military . . . to kill hundreds of civilians. As pro-democracy protests have swept the Middle East, only Gaddafi has responded with extreme violence. The choice of the United Nations to allow intervention will save thousands of lives and give international support for the right of people everywhere to choose their own government. Too often, the international community stands idly by while dictators like Gaddafi massacre the people they rule. The international response in Libya sets a precedent of not tolerating extreme violence against civilians.
Of course, this defense ignores the fact that Bush sought and received UN approval for his invasion of Iraq as well, and that Saddam Hussein was surely no less violent a dictator than Qaddafi. Even so, Obama’s war policy in Libya is distinctively multilateral and “humanitarian.” Bush may have sought international approval, but he did so as a matter of formality only after he had decided (justifiably or not) to pursue war with Iraq. And while Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, the primary justification for war with Iraq was not the humanitarian goal of protecting Iraqi civilians, but the (alleged) threat posed to the United States by Iraq’s alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
During the height of the Iraq war, The Undercurrent took the position that however unilateral and self-interested Bush’s decisions had appeared, his execution severely undercut the one morally legitimate goal of American war policy: to protect American lives. Even if Bush saw it as a formality, his effort to placate the UN delivered an implicit message to the world that the United States would defend its security only when given permission. His massive “nation-building” projects sent the message that the United States would fight wars only by doing penance for the “sin” of self-defense.
If Bush’s policy delivered this message implicitly, then Obama’s consistently multilateral and humanitarian war policy in Libya states it explicitly and unapologetically. Far from making Obama’s policy more justifiable, this declaration of a willingness to serve the demands of the “international community” at the price of risking American lives comes at a time when the danger of ignoring genuine threats to our security (as from Iran) could not be more obvious. As Elan Journo of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights observes:
[W]e do move against a minor, tinpot dictatorship where we have little at stake, while leaving the fire-breathing Tehran regime in place—tacitly endorsing its rule by failing to help the protesters. We do launch bombing raids in Libya—if the UN and Arab League approve it—for the sake of rebels whose goals we don’t know if we share, against a regime that’s of minor significance to our security. But against a threat to us, from Iran, we adopt statue-like passivity.
Put another way: When our interests are at stake—as they were and are in Iran—we hold back and appease. When someone else’s interests appear to be on the line (the rebels and civilians in Libya), we dutifully scramble jet-fighters and put American lives in harm’s way, for the sake of serving others. Why? That double standard is rooted in the prevalent, and perverse, moral view that permeates our foreign policy—a view requiring that we put the needs of others ahead of our own goals and interests. Acting in accordance with that view—as I argue in my book—has been enormously destructive to American security and freedom, across decades.
Creative Commons-licensed picture from Wikimedia Commons