By Danny Colligan
On the eighth anniversary of the second American invasion of Iraq — to the day — President Obama decided to join a group of other countries in attacking the positions of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. The move was justified by the various intervening countries on humanitarian grounds: the people of Libya were coming under brutal attack from their own government and needed some degree of protection. Is this a convincing enough reason for the United States to launch a simultaneous war in a third (depending upon how one counts) country? No, it is not. American actions are hypocritically meddling in a complicated, volatile, unpredictable affair, and these actions should be opposed.
The most striking element of the United States’ foray into Libya is its hypocrisy, which has gone unnoticed by just about everybody. The safety of various people around the world could well be increased by particular American actions — actions that fall well short of the violence, cost, and unpredictability of firing off cruise missiles. One would be to enforce a “no-fly zone” over Afghanistan and Pakistan by grounding the US drones that seem to have a special ability to turn wood-gathering children into viscera. Another would be to stop turning a blind eye to or encouraging oppressive regimes like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. A third would be for the US to follow its own laws and prohibit arms exports to countries where the weapons will surely be used for purposes other than self-defense. Given such easy, well-known opportunities for the betterment of humanity that are foregone in favor of a difficult and questionable one, claims that America truly is concerned about the security of oppressed peoples should fall on deaf ears.
But the hypocrisy thickens. If the United States were dead set on intervening in a country to protect a vulnerable population, one might ask “Why Libya?” After all, there are plenty of downtrodden souls around the globe who certainly wouldn’t mind having a righteous army sticking up for them. Laurent Gbagbo’s iron grip on the Ivory Coast has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and left scores dead in political violence. Women in the Congo deal with the possibility of another mass rape. The Israeli military continues to compound the suffering of the near-starving people of Gaza by launching deadly airstrikes into the territory. Does the US lift a finger to help any of these people? The negative answer points to another motive at play besides humanitarianism. Another question revealing the hypocrisy of US leadership is “Why now?” Politicians that were cozying up to Gaddafi in recent years have now lined up to condemn him — as if they were unaware that he ran an oppressive regime before the revolt started.
The Libyan intervention has been justified on moral grounds, but let us not forget that throughout history virtually all aggressive state actions are adorned with flowery rhetoric. Imperial Japan claimed that it would create “earthly paradise” in China by invading it. Nazi Germany defended the repression in occupied Europe by claiming it was protecting governments from the terror of foreign-backed partisans. The supporters of the second American invasion of Iraq promised freedom, democracy and women’s rights. Every act of aggression is cloaked in the language of liberal interventionism. So when one sees such language, one must recognize that its use is reflexive and probably not accurate. (I do not say this to deny the moral appeal of a Libya without Gaddafi, which is, of course, a hopeful and pleasant thought.)
We must also remember that war is spectacularly unpredictable. While supporters of intervention offer up seemingly rock-solid assurances (this will be a short operation … our missile technology is amazingly accurate … control of the mission will be handed over to someone else soon … the people of Libya are with us…), in past operations, similar statements have proven closer to wishful thinking (Iraq being a notorious example). Furthermore, what Donald Rumsfeld would call “known unknowns” blur the foreseeable outcome. Is the violence that America is seeking to prevent greater than the violence it will eventually cause? What if the airstrikes do little to stop Gaddafi’s butchery? What if the people the US is supporting create a reign of terror that makes Gaddafi look like a pussycat? Can anyone trust the Chairman of Benghazi’s National Council, who only a month ago was Gaddafi’s Minister of Justice?
Another unfortunate phenomenon of war is mission creep: the tendency of the scope of a military action to expand indefinitely. Just as the War in Afghanistan expanded from disrupting Al-Qaeda to overthrowing and then rebuilding the Afghan government, the action in Libya could quickly go from launching a few cruise missiles to something far greater in magnitude. The US could very well be starting a third long, costly, violent occupation. This fear is exacerbated by the fact that the hastily cobbled together Western coalition seems to agree on no further action beyond the immediate defense of Benghazi. What comes next — trying to negotiate a partition of the country, reconciling the two sides or regime change — seems to be ill-defined and presumably up to powerful states to do as they wish.
In launching the Libyan strikes, there was also a violation of democratic process. Obama only informed Congress of the new offensive days after it started. (One wonders why Obama didn’t go directly and immediately to the dependably bloodthirsty Congress, who would have certainly given him anything he wanted.) Even presidential candidate Obama agreed with this logic: “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.”
In fairness to those arguing for intervention, there is certainly a moral and legal basis for intervening in Libya: preventing the violence against civilians as stated in the UN Security Council Resolution 1973. And simply because the United States has carried out horrific acts in the past does not preclude its ability to implement good policies now. Rather, the germane question is: can one reasonably expect the United States to act as a protector of humanitarianism in Libya?
Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that the route America takes in Libya now will differ significantly from its past (and present) imperialist policies. There has been no recognizable change in culture or practice to make such a drastic change of heart believable. America continues to rampage around the world, mercilessly killing other civilians. Confronting American crimes remains the single greatest taboo of American political life. But perhaps this could change in the future. When prima facie war criminals like Kissinger and Bush go on trial, or when the US military withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan with apologies and reparations to the victims (this is not an exhaustive list; one could imagine other meaningful gestures), maybe that will signal a sea change in how America expects to conduct foreign policy. But as of right now, Obama can’t even address the 1973 American overthrow of Chilean democracy honestly, much less apologize for the act (when he was asked to do so at a recent Chilean press conference).
Intervening in Libya to take sides in a civil war is even less defensible than intervening on humanitarian grounds. The rebels have been romanticized by some, but can America be so sure that the people it is backing are truly the “good guys”? After all, they have their share of moral failings, too — for instance, attacking blacks on the suspicion of participating in Gaddafi’s mercenary army. As much as some may not like it, Gaddafi still has the support of a significant part of Libya. Falling into the easy trap of imagining this war as a Manichean conflict of good versus evil is a temptation that should be avoided.
The interests of what seems like the majority of the Libyan people and the interests of the United States leadership appear to align at present. That is no guarantee, however, that they will continue to do so, and history has shown that US politicians have few qualms about sacrificing Arabs for perceived political and material gain. The Libyans are begging for Western intervention now, but they soon might grow to regret it.