President Obama has become the target of a lot of criticism from the Republicans in the U.S. and from many anti-West critics in Europe and the Arab World. The criticisms present a plethora of reasons why the US should not have intervened in the Libyan civil war. These criticisms also come with attendant accusations of imperialism and war mongering. Some of the Republican critics of Obama are disingenuous, like Newt Gingrich, who first criticized the president for not intervening in Libya and then criticized him for intervening. Nevertheless some of the criticism is serious and deserves to be addressed.
Critique 1: America cannot afford to wage another war
True, the two wars launched by the Republican former President George W. Bush have cost the U.S. over a trillion dollars, increased our indebtedness to China, and undermined our capacity to bolster our own unstable economy. We are still engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and another engagement will stretch the military and financial resources to dangerous proportions. Can the US afford another military adventure? The answer is clear: a resounding no.
But if the question were framed as, “Can the US afford not to intervene in Libya and allow Col. Gaddafi to undermine the hope for democracy in Libya and stand by as he brutally punishes the rebels,” the answer once again is a resounding no. When the US and its allies intervened to impose United Nations sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya, Gaddafi’s supporters and his mercenaries were on the verge of capturing Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. Most analysts and commentators feared that Gaddafi would be brutal in his suppression of the rebellion and many civilians would be killed. Gaddafi threatened to go house by house in Benghazi to extract revenge without mercy or pity. If Benghazi had fallen, there would have been a small genocide. He has already caused the death of over 8,000 Libyans by refusing to step down from power in the face of overwhelming demand from the people.
Ignoring Gaddafi’s promise of massacre would have been a crime against humanity. While other countries may have an appetite to tolerate mass murder, the U.S. cannot. Yes, we cannot afford another war, and it may bankrupt us financially. But ignoring crimes against humanity will bankrupt us morally.
Critique 2: US imperialism
On March 23, a socialist magazine published an editorial titled “The Imperialist Scramble for Libya,” arguing that the West had attacked Libya not to save lives but to impose the imperialist order. Frankly, I teach the theory and history of imperialism in my classes on Third World Politics, but I could not follow the logic of this article. The US intervened in Libya, reluctantly when Benghazi was on the verge of falling in Gaddafi’s hands and only after both the UN and the Arab League had sanctioned the intervention.
Ironically, the same magazine published an article on March 17th arguing that Obama was reluctant to intervene in Libya even as Gaddafi brutally attacked his own people exposing the imperialist nature of US foreign policy. The author David White House concludes his article with a pithy summary of his argument: “The grisly truth behind the apparent turn away from intervention is that Western powers now expect Qaddafi, their ally just months ago, to do the job for them.”
It seems that if the US did not intervene in Libya, it was for imperial reasons, and if it did, it was for imperial reasons. Apparently for some, everything the U.S. does is for imperial reasons. But how do these same critics explain the inaction of Arab nations as Arabs are massacred, and the indifference of other global powers Brazil, China, Russia and India? Are they, too, imperial powers supporting Gaddafi?
Then there are those who suggest, “US intervention is because of oil”? Yes the US needs oil, but it will buy it from anyone, elected presidents, kings or dictators. How does it matter to the oil market if Libya remains a dictatorship or becomes a democracy?
Critique 3: Double Standards in Libya and Bahrain
Many commentators, particularly from the Muslim World, are accusing the United States of double standards. They argue that while the US supports pro-democracy activists in Libya, it is turning a blind eye to the oppression in Bahrain. And of course, the worst of motives are assumed for this double standard. A simple arithmetic argument, that the two situations are not similar, 20 dead in Bahrain so far and over 8,000 dead in Libya, underscores the degree of difference in the two situations. The crisis in Libya forced the US to engage, the crisis in Bahrain is not having the same effect.
Muslim countries, even a regional power like Turkey and a nuclear power like Pakistan, are doing absolutely nothing to ameliorate the crisis in fellow Muslim nations. All they seem to be doing is waiting for opportunities to unleash their anti-Americanism. Where is the outrage against Saudi Arabia for supporting Mubarak and other authoritarian regimes? Where is the outrage against Turkey and Pakistan and the rest of OIC for doing nothing while people are dying all over the region? Having said that, the US will have to revisit its relationship with Saudi Arabia, if the kingdom decides to become the protector of authoritarianism in the Arab World.
We cannot advocate democracy and look the other way as our close ally snuffs those fighting for democracy. We will be culpable of supporting dictatorship if we are selective and hypocritical in our advocacy of our values. The moral justification of our intervention in Libya will be compromised if we do not apply our values consistently.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is an associate professor at the University of Delaware and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. His website is http://www.ijtihad.org.