I am absolutely confident that we made the right decision. And not only that, I'm absolutely confident that the actions we took in Iraq are influencing reformers and freedom lovers in the greater Middle East. And I believe that you're going to see the rise of democracy in many countries in the broader Middle East, which will lay the foundation for peace.
Jun. 29, 2005 George W. Bush
Today I authorized the Armed Forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya in support of an international effort to protect Libyan civilians. That action has now begun…We are answering the calls of a threatened people. And we are acting in the interests of the United States and the world.
March 19, 2011 Barak Obama
Once More Unto the Breach
So, here we go again, the US is stepping in to protect the oppressed from the Tyrant. What, pray tell is the difference – morally, geopolitically and militarily – between Libya and Iraq, and why, among all Tyrannies, is the US taking up the fight against one who has become an ally?
The most perplexing question of all is; why is a President who opposed the Iraq war using exactly the same rationale as his predecessor to launch a military action against another Arab regime? In short, what am I missing here?
Libya: The Moral Case
President Obama recently justified intervention in Libya as necessary to stop a humanitarian crisis. While the goal is laudable, and leaving aside consideration of the likely efficacy of the policy, why has he chosen to act in this humanitarian crisis? What about the rape of democracy in Lebanon (if we keep focus solely on the Middle East) or why not act to support the protesters in Iran who have been as brutally repressed by their government as anything Qaddafi has meted out? Shhh, don’t dare mention Saudi Arabia.
There is just no moral case to selectively intervene in Libya, except that perhaps it is better to do something, somewhere than to do nothing anywhere.
President Obama remarked that the current uprisings in the Middle East are spontaneous and home grown, pointing out that the US is backing a popular uprising; not instigating it. I suspect he is attempting to differentiate his intervention from that of President Bush in Iraq, possibly believing the Arab masses will be grateful towards the US this time round: If so, the distinction is fallacious, as there was an active Shia and Kurd resistance to Saddam Hussein (which, incidentally, the US undermined in 1992).
Libya: The Geopolitical Case
For two decades Muammar Qaddafi had been an important financier of Islamic and Palestinian terrorism and a trafficker in nuclear arms. In 2003 he agreed to a rapprochement with the West as a part of which he renounced his nuclear ambitions and removed his support for terrorism. Insofar as the greatest perceived geopolitical threat faced by the US after 9/11 was terrorism and nuclear proliferation, the deal with Qaddafi – which, by all accounts, he has honored – counted as a major success in the War on Terror. Why would America now side with his opponents? We don’t know very much about them. Are they democrats? Are they Islamists? Do they hate the US? Will they support terrorism? We simply do not know.
Furthermore, the US made a deal with Qaddafi. Now it is telling him “that was then and this is now”. Maybe everything will be Ok if he is deposed. But even if that occurs, what signal does it send to other current and would be allies? Is the US unreliable? Can the US be trusted? That consideration is being given short shrift amidst the current frenzied calls for Qaddafi’s departure.
Many proponents of intervention believe the “Arab Spring” has given the US an opportunity to demonstrate its support for the masses, finally shedding its historic alliance with the Tyrants, who’s days appear numbered in any event. It is an historic opportunity for the US to get on the ‘right’ side of history in the Middle East and diffuse the enmity it has cultivated in the past. But for the US to gain credibility with the supposed Pan Arab uprising – it is truly breathtaking to read pundits pontificate on “the” cause and the inevitability of a movement they scarcely knew existed two months ago – it surely needs to be consistent in its support of the Street. That means it should take sides against the Monarchies in Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia –but it is unlikely to do so. Most puzzlingly, the US appears to be doing nothing to aid freedom fighters in Iran, with whom it has a high stakes confrontation. That is, where faced by an out and out enemy who also happens to be brutally repressive, the US is looking the other way.
Libya: The Military Case
This one, it seems to me, is obvious. Libya is of no military consequence to the US except if it traffics in nuclear weapons and finances terrorists, as it has done in the past. But the US made a deal with Qaddafi that put a stop to it. From the US perspective, a Libya that is pumping oil and staying neutral cannot be improved upon, and that is what it has been in recent times under the rule of Col. Qaddafi.
What to Do?
The Neoconservatives in the Bush Administration were surely correct in pointing to the vulnerability of America’s continued dependence on its alliances with the repressive regimes in the Middle East in the face of increasingly restless populations. They advocated introducing democracy and capitalism – and using Iraq as the launch pad – into the Middle East in the hope that freedom and economic opportunity would prove more popular with the Arab masses – particularly the youth - that the dark and hate filled imperatives of radical Islam. The jury is still out on its ultimate impact, but Iraq does not look like a success today. The US has opened a door into Iraq that Iran was unable to accomplish in ten years of war and a million casualties, and its intervention appears to have lowered, not raised, its appeal to the Arab masses.
The Middle East remains a quandary for the US. It is in keeping with its history and its institutions – and a blessing for the world – that the American people incline to support those seeking freedom from tyranny. But given the brute fact of its dependence of Arab oil, the US has restricted room for maneuver. It cannot throw all of its weight behind anti-government forces when it must deal with governments – like Saudi Arabia- to keep its economy afloat, and I do not here propose any solution to the dilemma.
But Muammar Qaddafi, homicidal maniac though he may be, posed no threat to US interests- before the US turned on him - and the intervention into Libya risks diverting the limited financial, political and military resources of the US from its real enemies, like Iran, whom it will, sooner or later have to deal with. Put bluntly, Iraq was a diversion and so is Libya. They are both indulgences the US can ill afford to have taken.