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Stay out of Libya


It was good to see that the Pentagon was unenthusiastic about military intervention in Libya. But that didn’t prevent President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from plunging headlong into the civil war raging there.

Obama’s entry into the civil war can be criticized on many levels: the mission as explained is incoherent; Congress was not asked for a declaration of war as the Constitution requires; events in Libya do not affect the security of the American people; bombing another oil-rich Muslim country aggravates the conditions that create anti-American terrorism; killing innocent civilians is nearly inevitable; the rebels’ motives are unclear; mission creep happens; war unleashes unforeseen, uncontrollable forces; the government is already deep in debt; and more.

All those objections are valid — and any one of them should have been enough to scotch the plan.

Consider the operation’s incoherence. Obama originally said this strictly aerial engagement would last a matter of days and was aimed only at saving civilians from Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s air attacks, but was not intended to drive him from power, although the president said he “has to go.” But won’t Qaddafi simply resume his attacks on the rebels when the Americans and their allies leave? (He hasn’t stopped even under NATO attack.) Obama also said that to use military force to effect regime change would “splinter” the coalition aiding the rebels. But how important is the humanitarian mission if keeping the coalition intact is a higher priority?

The obvious illogic masks lies and a hidden agenda. The U.S.-led force has not only attacked the Libyan air force and air defenses; it has also struck ground forces and military facilities. Even Qaddafi’s compound was hit. This intervention does much more than enforce a no-fly zone.

It appears the American people have been lulled into another open-ended war.

The humanitarian rationalization for intervention is tissue-thin anyway. Innocent civilians and resisters to oppression are under siege in many countries all around the world. Why single out Libya, whose head of state has been a U.S.-financed ally for the last several years? (Anyway, Qaddafi has not perpetrated civilian massacres despite opportunities.) Obama’s defenders dismiss that question, saying the U.S. government’s inability to intervene everywhere is no argument that it shouldn’t intervene anywhere. But that misses the point. Where the government chooses to intervene is revealing. Oil might have something to do with it.

It should also be noted that the man who launched this “humanitarian” operation is the same man who for more than two years has been bombing civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, as well as claiming the authority to order the assassination of American citizens and to hold prisoners indefinitely without charge or trial.

The president and his advisors, of course, are not as scatterbrained as this operation suggests. They have more in mind than they are telling the American people, whom they fear are suffering war fatigue. That would explain the emphasis placed on the approval of the Arab League, the UN Security Council, and NATO, which is an American tool. NATO’s Supreme Commander, Europe, Adm. James Stavridis, is an American. (For the legal sticklers, it is worth noting that this operation has nothing to do with the NATO mission set out in the treaty approved by the U.S. Senate after World War II. NATO was to be a pact for collective security against the Soviet Union, which has been gone for 20 years, not a freelance global policing agency.)

Make no mistake: despite participation by Britain and France, this is a U.S. operation. Nor should we be impressed that a group of Arab countries run by autocrats beholden to the U.S. government asked for intervention against an erratic head of state they have never liked. It should be noted that Saudi Arabia has troops in Bahrain defending the dictator-king against rebels.

A U.S. military intervention dressed up as a humanitarian action by the “community of nations” is nonetheless a U.S. intervention.

And what’s behind it all? It’s same old story of American global hegemony. As George H.W. Bush put it, “What we say goes.”

The spectacle of so-called liberals, some of whom criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq, urging intervention in Libya is almost amusing. As Brendan O’Neill of Spiked wrote in the Telegraph just before the intervention,

The ignorance of liberal interventionists is captured in the fact that they seem to have wilfully forgotten the disastrous interventions of the past 15 years, all of which, from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan to Iraq, exacerbated local tensions and led to more, not less, bloodshed. It takes a special kind of arrogance to be able to demand yet another international military venture when the terrible consequences of your last one are still plain to see. And their narcissism is contained in the fact that the real reason they are making these demands for war is to make themselves feel good, to demonstrate that they care with a capital C. They know nothing of the countries that they want to see invaded, and care little about the potential of such invasions to destabilise things further. No, all that matters is that in saying “Forget Iraq, let’s now attack Gaddafi!”, they can publicly demonstrate their own moral indefatigability.

… To invade now in order to satisfy Western politicians’ and hacks’ lust for a bit of purpose in their humdrum lives would be to turn this fledgling democracy into a moral protectorate of the West — and store up more war for the future.

Similarly, Seumas Milne, writing in the Guardian, remarked on the spectacle of “liberals” who push for a war with Libya, “It’s as if the bloodbaths of Iraq and Afghanistan had been a bad dream. The liberal interventionists are back. As insurrection and repression has split Libya in two and the death toll has mounted, the old Bush-and-Blair battle-cries have returned to haunt us.”

The fake freedom agenda

In the United States, neoconservative voices, unsurprisingly, have joined the interventionist chorus. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, John Yoo, one of the lawyers who gave legal cover to Bush’s torture program, criticized Obama for deferring to the United Nations rather than intervening unilaterally. “This pious elevation of international law over American national interests means that more innocent civilians will die and authoritarian regimes will last longer.”

“A better way, consistent with the traditions of U.S. foreign policy, would spread democracy and capitalism to critical regions like the oil-rich Middle East,” he wrote. By “capitalism,” Yoo means not free markets but U.S. hegemony. By “democracy,” he means a regime to the U.S. policy elite’s liking. (It liked Qaddafi until not long ago.) And when he speaks of innocent civilians dying, he ignores the innocent civilians who are being killed by the intervention, as they have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

Milne brought some refreshing sense to the self-righteous calls for intervention:

But any such intervention would risk disaster and be a knife at the heart of the revolutionary process now sweeping the Arab world….

The “responsibility to protect” invoked by those demanding intervention in Libya is applied so selectively that the word hypocrisy doesn’t do it justice. And the idea that states which are themselves responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in illegal wars, occupations and interventions in the last decade, along with mass imprisonment without trial, torture and kidnapping, should be authorised by international institutions to prevent killings in other countries is simply preposterous….

… Those calling for western military action in Libya seem brazenly untroubled by the fact that throughout the Arab world, foreign intervention, occupation and support for dictatorship is regarded as central to the problems of the region. Inextricably tied up with the demand for democratic freedoms is a profound desire for independence and self-determination….

… Military intervention wouldn’t just be a threat to Libya and its people, but to the ownership of what has been until now an entirely organic, homegrown democratic movement across the region.

Milne quoted a rebel military leader in Benghazi, Gen. Ahmad Gatroni, saying that the United States should “take care of its own people, we can look after ourselves.”

Milne and journalist Eric Margolis both report that Western intelligence has worked with anti-Qaddafi elements for quite a while. Yet that did not stop the United States and Britain from making nice with the dictator in the last decade. In return for his scrapping nuclear materials of dubious importance, Qaddafi got aid from the United States and arms from Britain, not to mention prestigious diplomatic recognition from both. Meanwhile, he (like Egypt’s former dictator Hosni Mubarak) was excused from the requirement to democratize his country. So much for the Bush administration’s freedom agenda, which the neoconservatives desperately try to credit for the Arab uprisings. (That agenda was quietly scrapped as a rhetorical device when the “wrong” people won in Gaza and Lebanon — Hamas and Hezbollah, respectively.)

American presidents have sought to police the globe for generations. What has it gotten the American people? Endless war abroad and big government and economic hardship at home. Instead of being a beacon of liberty, the country is a symbol of militarism, occupation, and death. Obama, the fraudulent peace advocate, has followed the same interventionist course. What Americans should worry about is a U.S. government free to roam the world, carrying out the ruling elite’s agenda of political and economic aggrandizement. Americans pay homage to freedom, but they cannot be free under these circumstances. When Washington, Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams warned against an imperial foreign policy, they understood that it would require a government of unlimited power beyond the scrutiny and control of the people. (That’s why WikiLeaks scares the hell out of the imperial overlords.) If Americans mean what they say about liberty, they will insist on a dismantling of the U.S. empire.

Decent people of course do not want to see dictators killing people. However, expecting the U.S. government to right all wrongs will not only fail; it will also create a whole new set of wrongs at home and abroad.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.