Commentators have been comparing the current Libyan campaign with Bush 2003 in Iraq, hoping to launch the following viral conceit: liberals/Democrats are judging Obama by different standards because the multilateral justifications for use force in the Libya air campaign are equivalent to the arguments which propelled the Bush administration's March 2003 unilateral decision to invade Iraq invasion. Putting aside for a second the fact that a lot of liberals and Democrats have indeed expressed major reservations to outright resistance to the current U.S. use of force, I don’t think Bush/Iraq and Obama/Libya equation stands up to serious analysis. The U.S. is not invading Libya, but engaged in a limited air campaign akin to Iraq’s decades long no-fly zone (a more apt comparison) and Clinton’s Serbia-Kosovo campaign; Hussein was not actively engaged in a large-scale attempt to liquidate one of his own cities when a vast U.S. invasion force removed him and his entire Ba’athist political superstructure from power. The Bush administration ran through a series of justifications for its Iraq adventure, which eventually included a humanitarian appeal that was for a number of reasons deeply cynical.

I think it is likewise cynical to allege that Obama began this current campaign to shore up his domestic image and project power. He had to be dragged into this decision by the French and the British (who remain eager to go further than Obama), and it’s pretty clear he hopes to be out of Libya at the first opportunity.

The U.S. had two opportunities, probably more, to intervene in Iraq based on humanitarian grounds. Have we forgotten already? In 1988, Iraq forces used chemical agents to attack the Kurdish city of Halabja, killing thousands of men, women and children, almost all noncombatans. That assault could have (should have) provoked a “responsibility to protect” style intervention such as we are witnessing now in Libya. Instead the Reagan Administration, including a cast of characters who would later decide that what happened at Halabja indeed required Hussein’s removal (only in 2003 this time) tried to shift blame for the murderous gas attack to Iran. See, we were realpolitik pals with Hussein in those days.

At the end of the Gulf War, the Shi’ites in Iraq’s south and Kurds in the north took to heart President Bush encouragement to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime and launched an ill-fated resistance a day after the U.S. signed a cease fire with Hussein’s military in March 1991. After it became clear that the entire southern Shi’a population would be punished for this outrage, thousands killed, and millions of Kurds put to flight, the U.S. had another opportunity—and material in the area to support it—to launch an intervention based on humanitarian grounds. The Bush I administration elected not to support the uprisings, following the logic that too much chaos would erupt in the wrong kind of removal of Saddam Hussein. Although under the terms of the Gulf War ceasefire, the Iraqi military was not allowed to use fixed wing aircraft, U.S. forces did not intervene when Iraqi helicopters were used to devastating effect against the Shi’a in the south and Kurds in the north.

None of this is to say that what the president is doing now in Libya is good or wise (It may be good without being wise); it’s just to say, this is not the same situation and no amount of domestic political point-scoring can make it so. I must confess that the distinction to me the shooting of demonstrators in Yemen and Syria and intervening when civilians are targets in Libya or elsewhere (what would the U.S. do in the event, for instance of a Tiananmen square replay under RtP?) is a case of scale not kind. Scale does matter, however, less the RtP is invoked for hundreds of outrages around the world.

The responsibility to protect as an international doctrine is still pretty young, emerging out of experiences like Halabja, Rwanda and Kosovo. It will likely take a long time before it hardens into an accepted international structure for triggering multilateral intervention to forestall another country's internal use of force. There may be missteps as this doctrine develops. This may indeed be one of them. As I type these words, the NATO (i.e., U.S.)-led coalition has just committed itself to the removal of Qaddafi under the belief that his departure is the only way to assure the safety of civilians in Libya’s east. We are heading into a dangerous expansion of the aims of the campaign and the resulting responsibility to the civilians who will left behind when the firing is over, with Qaddafi out or holding on. If the coalition is not successful or if the people the coalition is protecting exact their own unrestrained revenge on Qaddafi loyalists in the west of Libya, it could set back the notion of the international responsibility to protect immeasurably just as this important doctrine was beginning to find general acceptance.

Comments

Anonymous | 4/1/2011 - 9:06am
I'm amazed that liberals have undergone this 180 degree shift in opinion from 'all war is always bad' to "well, stupid wars are bad when the US attacks countries that are absolutely no immediate threat to us' to 'well, it's OK to invade so long as the UN is Ok with it..." to "hmmm maybe war is actually good as a deterent to dictators hurting their people..."

Of course, dictators wouldn't begin hostilities on their people if the people had the right to keep and bear arms.

It's because most 3rd world people have no private ownership of the means of self-defense - that most of the genocides and pogroms, ethnic cleansing and massacres from all of history have taken place.

Before you, dear reader, go into knee-jerk jumping to conclusions.... haven't you ever noticed that the much hated NRA promotes the ownership of firearms for ALL americans and not just white suburbia? Haven't you ever noticed that most gun crimes occur in zones where private ownership of firearms is illegal (i.e. where most people are defenseless?)

Rwanda's genocide was launched only after the government disarmed the population. Ditto with Armenia's genocide. Croatia and Bosnia survived the onslaught of Serbian aggression (and a UN ARMS EMBARGO) only thanks to relatively light weaponry they had illegally obtained (like hunting rifles), the use of trench war-fare tactics and the Serbs own fear of house to house fighting.

So if you want to protect people from tyrants, promote private means of self-defense. Just as the best way to avoid a Media blackout is to have alternative means of communications....

If we wanted to eliminate piracy on the high seas, it would only take the allowance of merchant ships to be armed - not navies patrolling the oceans (unless they're going to assault the pirate's home ports). Again, history proves that when most people are able to defend themselves, criminal gangs and criminal regimes fade away.
Gabriel Marcella | 3/31/2011 - 12:05pm
David,
Apreciate your comment. R2P is not law, at best it's an emerging norm for nations to adhere to. No nation has signed the dotted line to this point, despite exhortations by the Secretary General of the United Nations and NGOs. It's a good norm to promote, and if the Libya operation succeeds it may help deter future Ghaddafis from massacring their own people.  But there is little certainty in international affairs, other than that nations will do what they consider to be in their best interests (which may also be the wrong decison). If the R2P principle had prevailed perhaps the massacres in Srebrenica, Rwanda, Somalia, southern Sudan, Kosovo, and the Shiites in the Iraqi marshes would not have taken place. Idealistic? Indeed. But what better justification for the use of force? At the same time how do we as citizens of an international community promote the defense of the defenseless? We have an opportunity here to debate, clarify, and inform our democratic process.
Gabriel Marcella | 3/30/2011 - 5:39pm
Kevin,
There may be some confusion, deriving perhaps from its novelty, about the "responsibility to protect." also called R2P.  The concept originated from a Canadian initiative some 10 years ago, and was given greater impetus by the United Nations and its Secretary General. It is an emerging norm, it does not have the force of law, nor do all nations agree. Yet it comes closest to jus ad bellum, to justifying resort to war, in the case of Libya, to save people from massacre. Commentators from left and right are missing this essential point about the US-NATO-Arab League initiative, which received the support of the UN Security Council. It's not about oil, not about flexing muscle, and not about settling old accounts. The central question for readers of America is what does this action portend for the future of R2P? Is this a precedent that might illuminate options for situations where governments undertake to massacre their people?
John Barbieri | 3/29/2011 - 6:11pm
Most of us like to do what we're good at.
After listening to his speech of last evening, our president appears to be good at misrepresentation.
Anonymous | 3/29/2011 - 2:46pm

''which propelled the Bush administration's March 2003 unilateral decision to invade Iraq invasion.''
 
This distortion is enough to dismiss most of the post as political posturing. 
 
And Mr. Clarke knows that the US and the world have a habit of only intervening in certain situations.  Iraq was chosen because it was the lowest hanging fruit of the Axis of Evil and because it could, because of its geographical position, possibly lead to a safer Middle East.  Libya was chosen because of its oil which allows a dictator like Qaddaffi to exist and also allows him to defend so ruthlessly.  It's all about oil and political objectives here in the US.  It will be defended on humanitarian grounds and if successful they will try to make Obama look like a foreign policy genius.  See the political campaign starting
 
http://washingtonexaminer.com/politics/2011/03/timothy-p-carney-obama-aides-find-moral-clarity-libyas-foggy-war
 
But don't believe any of the humanitarian BS.  During the Clinton administration the 10th largest war in the history of mankind was fought with several million killed and no one here knew about it.  We are not anywhere for humanitarian reasons.  That is a farce.  We are in Libya for domestic political reasons.  Getting rid of Qaddaffi is a good thing but he cannot be replaced by anyone.  And as I said on the other thread, Bin Laden may have been aroused.  Has the evil Smaug come out of his cave?  
 
Here is the Wikipedia link on the Congo cassualties that took place while Mrs. Clinton was first lady and we never heard a peep out of anyone.  And by the way most of the deaths took place after the well publicized genocide in Rawanda.  What hypocrisy.  Sometimes I wonder if any of these people have any shame.  All they care about is how to spin it.
 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_and_anthropogenic_disasters_by_death_toll
Anonymous | 3/29/2011 - 3:40pm
A few modest responses to this thoughtful post:

1. You seem to be implying that those drawing the Iraq inferences are doing so purely to score political points.  Yet it is Katrina Vanden Heuvel of The Nation who has gone furthest in making the analogy than any conservative I've seen.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-cost-of-libyan-intervention/2011/03/22/ABYfx8CB_story.html

Moreover, criticism of the President's rationale has come most vocally from Dennis Kucinich and fmr. Rep. Jane Harman; I haven't seen the Speaker of the House question the need for the no-fly zone.  So there has been bipartisan questioning of this rationale, not simply the usual right-wingers.

2. Leaving aside comparisons to Iraq, the President has stated that American policy is regime-change in Libya, and already a fair amount of mission creep has occurred leading the Arab League to protest.  So when will the President be forced to re-define the mission, and will the "right to protect" require regime-change if, for example, Ghadaffi threatens chemical weapons?  Moreover, this so-called "Doctrine" of "right to protect", as far as I can tell, is taken from a snippet in a UN document and is not very well-developed (certainly not as developed as Just War theory), yet is being employed in some quite surprising ways.  How far does it take us - to Syria?  Saudi Arabia? Iran?  it seems to embryonic to serve as a ground for American foreign policy.

3. With respect to the Iraq comparison, I write from the POV of a Republican who opposed the Iraq invasion.  Some the points of differentiation you raise are valid, yet I cannot help but read last night's speech and see present in it many reasons that COULD HAVE justified an invasion of Iraq.  The most telling line is this:

"There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security -– responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce."

That is a VERY broad articulation of the use of American military power, and I really cannot help but think what the response from some would have been if George W. Bush had used those words.  I think we all know the response would have been quite different.