The Obama Doctrine: Through the Looking Glass

Sunday, 27 March 2011 00:00 GFP Columnist - Jack Random
“It is time to become what American principles and values insist that we must become. It is time to be what our leaders have always claimed that we were: a beacon of justice, human rights and democracy. It is time to fulfill the promise of our forefathers. Our destiny cannot and must not be to dominate the world but rather to improve the lot of human kind.” - The Jazzman Chronicles, Volume One, Principles of Foreign Policy.

I believe in democracy. I believe in the right of the people to self-determination. I believe in civil liberties and fundamental human rights. I believe that unjustified war is the ultimate violation of human rights and, therefore, the use of arms to settle conflicts must be a last option.

I am not a pacifist. I believe there are circumstances that justify war. For a war to be truly justified, these circumstances cannot be defined ad hoc. They cannot be adopted impromptu to fit the circumstance of a crisis. They must be defined as a matter of policy and principle.

Clearly, a war is justified if a nation or its allies is attacked by another nation. By this essential and fundamental standard, no major military action since World War II has been justified. The Korean War was avoidable. The Vietnam War was a crime against civilization. The Iraq Wars were strategic. The Afghan-Pakistan War was unwise and unnecessary. The people who misled us into that war belittled those who called for a police action but that is exactly what our response should have been. A nation does not respond to a terrorist attack with the blunt instrument of war unless it wants to elevate the terrorist group to the status of sovereignty.

Politicos and politicians of all stripes can say that Afghanistan is now Obama’s war but that rings hollow. Libya is in fact the only military action instigated by the Obama administration. Thus far it remains uncertain and vague as a statement of policy. The administration may have its own reasons for this obscuration of purpose but if we want to determine fairly and objectively whether this war meets the standard of a justified action we must apply principles and policies already established.

Toward that end I have consulted my own prior writings for the principles that apply to the current action in Libya.

Principle: The United States will not engage in interventions that support non-democratic governments or governments that violate the inalienable rights of its citizens.

While it would seem that this principle would argue against Muammar Gaddafi it does not argue for intervention. Gaddafi is a despot and his government is tyrannical but we know very little about the opposition and what kind of government they would in fact bring. Moreover, we have neither the right nor the capacity to depose every despot in the world. Therefore the justification for this war must originate elsewhere.

Principle: Our nation will take appropriate action to prevent, inhibit or halt genocide.

This was the rationale Bill Clinton used for intervention in Kosovo where we were told genocide was under way. While there is evidence that massacres occurred on both sides of that conflict, the definition of genocide likely relies more on massive dislocation than on an attempt to exterminate the Muslim population. There is strong evidence that the US led NATO intervention may have enabled a reverse genocide (see “The Truth About Bosnia and Kosovo” by David Icke). By any objective account, the case for intervention in Kosovo is far more complex and less compelling than we have been led to believe.

Leaving an analysis of Kosovo aside, is there compelling evidence that genocide was about to occur in Libya? After the bombing began Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quick to claim that a massacre was prevented in Benghazi. Maybe so. Maybe not. Any number of scenarios could have played out. A genuine truce might have been negotiated in lieu of a NATO attack or stiff sanctions. The western world could have seized the accounts of all mercenaries engaged in Libya unless they withdrew immediately. The opposition could have laid down their arms.

What we do know is that the Libyan opposition is political. It is not representative of any ethnic divide. Therefore, neither the extent of violence nor the nature of the conflict allows any consideration of genocide in Libya. This is not a cause for war.

Principle: We will not act as the police force of the world.

This principle argues strongly against unilateral intervention. President Obama was right to seek international agreement and the consent of the United Nations Security Council. Unlike his predecessor he did not defy the United Nations and he did not build a coalition by bribery and coercion. As long as we remain within the mandate of the Security Council resolution we have the sanction of international law. The instant we go beyond that mandate we lose moral and legal grounding.

When the president states that his standard for success in Libya is the removal of Gaddafi from power, he signals that he is prepared to go beyond the mandate. He promises that we will not take the lead in this operation and we will not commit troops to yet another ground war in the region. This is the very definition of a mixed message. Reminiscent of the promises made by the Clinton administration in Kosovo (promises that were not kept), we have run headlong into a zone of duplicity where we can neither move forward nor backward. If in fact the bombing campaign is insufficient to remove the dictator from power, we will have placed ourselves in a dilemma: Escalate our involvement or admit that we have failed and placed the civilians we were charged to protect at even greater risk than before.

This is precisely why policies of intervention should not be left to impromptu actions. We cannot afford to be entangled in yet another civil war while our nation is facing a prolonged economic crisis, while our own people are suffering and while the other more pressing needs of the world and the nation are neglected.

We have neither the right nor the resources to act as the police force of the world.

Principle: We will practice a policy of restraint in civil wars and civil conflicts.

A careful consideration of this principle would have prevented our disastrous entanglements in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It would have precluded us from a protracted engagement in Kosovo with at best mixed results.

How does it apply in Libya? Is this a civil war or is it an unpopular dictator imposing his will through mercenary forces and arms supplied by many of the same powers now aligned against him?

I have said so before and I will say so again: There is no place in a civilized world for mercenary armies. The first lesson of this conflict like so many others is that we can no longer permit mercenary armies and weapons traders to act with no more restraint than the free market allows. Mercenaries should be banned outright. Weapons traders should operate under strict international guidelines. No civilized nation should be supplying arms to dictators, tyrants and kings who operate independent of the will of their people.

What do we expect to happen when the people rise up against despotic leaders, as they inevitably will?

It is not yet clear whether the conflict in Libya can best be defined as a civil war or a popular uprising. If it is a civil war or becomes one, our best policy is restraint. If it is a popular uprising, our justification for war remains uncertain.

I can only conclude that either the principles guiding the Obama administration are substantially different than my own or this was an emotion-charged response to a crisis situation. Like the Bush administration in Afghanistan and Iraq, it appears to lack foresight. Like the ill-fated Supreme Court decision in 2000 that installed Bush in the White House, the administration may wish to discount precedent value but it cannot be done.

Are we prepared to act in kind when similar circumstances arise in other countries? How do we justify failure to act in Yemen, Bahrain, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia or anywhere else a popular uprising is suppressed by a non-democratic government?

Discounting the expansion of the Afghan War into Pakistan, the bombing of Libya was the first military intervention instigated by the Obama administration. What does it say about the Obama Doctrine of foreign policy?

It seems clear that the president is far less restrained in committing the force of arms than I can condone. The hope now is that events in Libya do not veer out of control as they have in Afghanistan and as they did in Iraq. The hope now is that the president will be able to keep his promise of a limited intervention.

Murphy’s Law holds that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. That is precisely why we should never engage in actions on the scale of war without a clear objective and an equally clear path to its fulfillment.

We are asking for trouble in Libya. We are asking for trouble with a policy that cannot be sustained elsewhere in the world. We are taking a gamble in an arena where the risks are far too great.

I genuinely hope the opposition seizes control in Libya and under the pressure of an international coalition fulfills the promise of a democratic government. If it does not and events spin out of control, entangling us in yet another quagmire of indefinite length, then this decision may well prove catastrophic.

For now we can only ask the president to remember his promise. The people do not want another war in a faraway land. We cannot afford it and we do not wish to sacrifice any more lives to foreign misadventures.

Image Courtesy of DayLife - President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

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