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Monday, March 28, 2011

President Obama's Justification for Limited Military Intervention in Libya: Driving a Wedge between the Bushes

In the early evening of March 28, 2011, President Barak Obama addressed the American people and the world to explain his administration’s involvement in the international coalition that had been implementing a no fly zone over Libya while protecting Libyan civilians from their own ruler. He sounded much more like the first President Bush than the second in terms of foreign policy.  Similar to how the elder Bush had restrained himself from going all the way to Baghdad after he had joined an international coalition in removing the Iraqis from Kuwait, Obama said that directing American troops to forcibly remove Colonel Qaddafi from power would be a step too far, and would “splinter” the international coalition that had imposed the no fly zone and protected civilians in rebel areas of Libya. Interestingly, in taking the elder Bush’s route, Obama came out strongly against that of Bush II. Referring to the alternative of extending the U.S. mission to include regime change, Obama stated, “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq . . . regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.” In effect, Obama was exposing a fundamental difference between George H.W. Bush and his son by saying essentially the same thing as the elder Bush had done while excoriating the foreign invasion of his son. Yet Obama did not stop there. He added a theoretical framework that the elder Bush could well have used.
The New York Times puts the theory quite well. “The president said he was willing to act unilaterally to defend the nation and its core interests. But in other cases, he said, when the safety of Americans is not directly threatened but where action can be justified — in the case of genocide, humanitarian relief, regional security or economic interests — the United States should not act alone. His statements amounted both to a rationale for multilateralism and another critique of what he has all along characterized as the excessively unilateral tendencies of the George W. Bush administration.” In other words, even in providing a basic framework, Obama was able to distance Bush the father from Bush the son.  Interestingly, Obama had awarded the senior Bush with the Metal of Freedom over a month earlier. I would be very surprised if Obama would award Bush the Son such a prize. In terms of foreign policy, the philosophical line in the sand clearly distinguishes the second Bush from both his own father and Barak Obama.
Of course, the President’s speech left his audience hanging in other respects. For instance, averting a large-scale massacre in Libya is in the U.S. strategic or national interest because of our humanitarian values as well as the proximity of Libya to the nascent upheavals in Tunisia in Egypt. So would not protecting a mass protest in Yemen, which is next to Saudi Arabia, or in Syria, which has particular strategic interest to the U.S. on account of Syria’s connection with Lebanon (and thus relevant for Israel) and Iran, also be in the American national interest?  The President could argue that neither Yemen (or Bahrain) nor Syria had come to the point where the civilians in a major city were at risk—but it could still be asked, what if?  Must there be a baleful hint of genocide in a city commensurate to the Libyan city of Benghazi for protesters to warrant invoking principled leadership with or without allies when a ruler has effectively lost his right to rule by having turned on his own people?
I contend that the President treated the U.S. strategic interest quite broadly by including the protection of large numbers of civilians against their own ruler, particularly when even the portent of carnage could destabilize emergent republics next door. Such interest is broader than questions such as, “how the civilians would view the U.S. were they to gain power?” and “what effect would a new government have on Iran and Israel?” Such questions pertain to a narrower conception of national interest—one that is much less of value to a country. Viewing the good will of protesters as an opportunity—essentially taking on the wider, humanitarian-inclusive, notion of national interest—Syria, Bahrain and Yemen become like Libya as soon as their respective protests and prospect of government brutality reach a certain threshold that Libya had surpassed. What that threshold is—meaning in terms of scale as well as brutality—is something the American Congress and President need to decide. For once that is set, attention can turn to the mechanism involved in forming an international coalition should a country cross the line. Differing from Obama, I submit that the establishment of a threshold can be relied up such that principled leadership could be invoked by the U.S. even in the absence of partners at the outset. Such unilateralism would differ appreciably from that of Bush the Younger, whose invasion of Iraq was based on a criterion used for that one case alone (WMD).  In other words, unilateralism need not mean capriciousness or impulsiveness. A humanitarian threshold undergirded by a strategic interest in there being a world wherein rulers serve rather than violently turn on their own people can justify not only international coalitions, but also instances of principled leadership.
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