President Obama’s Moral Logic for Intervening in Libya
March 29, 2011 Leave a comment
Last night President Barack Obama delivered a speech defending US military involvement in establishing a no-fly zone in Libya. In doing so, he was responding to critics from both the Left and the Right. In this speech President Obama laid out the logic of his moral and political reflection on this issue. It is mostly another in a long line of thinking about American power and responsibility in an increasingly globalized world. However, there was also one piece of the argument that seemed relatively unique to our current president. Before examining the moral logic at work, please take the time (28 minutes) to watch the speech in full:
There were three key themes that resonated in President Obama’s speech:
1. America’s unique responsibility in the world.
2. Intervening in Libya is important to American interests and values.
3. The uniqueness of the situation in Libya
3a. The reality of an international coalition, including Arab states, willing to work together in intervening.
3b. The request of the Libyan people and opposition for help.
3c. The United States is not risking much in the action.
3d. The responsibility to take the often stated “never again” position towards genocide and mass killing seriously, perhaps for the first time in history.
I will take these different reasons for intervention one at a time.
1. President Obama assumes that because of the history of the United States – namely our own history of democratic revolution and insistence on encouraging democracy throughout the world – and our unique role as the world’s largest military and political power, we have a unique responsibility to ensure that people around the world seeking forms of democratic government should receive our support. We have the money and the bombs to ensure that those opposed to democracy don’t use their money, guns, and bombs to suppress the longings for political freedom of people in any part of the world. This is not anything that is necessarily new in American politics (though “interventionist” and “isolationist” forms of international political engagement continues to be a hotly contested question in American politics), and is reflected in such trite phrases as “responsibility to protect” and “making the world safe for democracy.” This form of international politics goes back, at least, to the era of the Cold War, but arguments can easily be made that they began earlier than that.
Now, the moral logic functioning here is that of “responsibility.” Responsibility is here understood as a duty placed on those who have certain forms of power that may be used to achieve a desired/just end that others lack the power to achieve to use that power to help those others achieve their desired ends. As a student of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I find the language of responsibility quite compelling, but it is not always clear what people mean when using that language. Bonhoeffer meant being a “person for others” to the point of bearing guilt and/or sin in the service of others. I do not believe that is what President Obama means. There is no sense in which he views his actions as bearing any guilt. (He perhaps sees this military action as regrettable, even tragic, but not guilt inducing.) Rather, he sees it as something that, if ignored, would bring guilt upon the United States. To avoid our responsibility would make us guilty. Therefore, to avoid bringing the guilt associated with the blood of the Libyan people that would be shed by Qaddafi the US had to act.
“For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom. Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act. That’s what happened in Libya over the course of these last six weeks.”
“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
Born, as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way. Because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States. Ultimately, it is that faith — those ideals — that are the true measure of American leadership.”
2. Like Presidents have done in all military actions, while appealing to moral categories such as democracy, responsibility, freedom, and the like, President Obama also went out of his way to point out that this intervention is in our interests. We did not intervene simply because it was the right or moral thing to do. We also intervened because it is in our national interests. We have a vested interest in the political stability of the Arab world and the spread of democracy throughout it. Libya’s geographic position and political instability/repression threatened to destabilize the burgeoning democracies in Egypt and Tunisia that border the country. There was the potential for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing into these countries that are facing huge obstacles of their own to establishing democracy. If Qaddafi was successful, it was possible that democratic movements in three, not only one, north African countries would be seriously threatened. In other words, this is no act of altruism. This is not moral sentimentality. For those people out there who will never be convinced by such moralizing, this is a strategic decision that furthers the interests of the United States in the world.
For Obama, it is not purely interest, however. He is consistently clear that this intervention is also in line with America’s values. What values? Namely democracy, the right to life and liberty, and protection of the innocent and weak. For President Obama, we are not a people who sit idly by while others are killed. Or if we do, we are being untrue to our professed values.
Moreover, America has an important strategic interest in preventing Qaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful –- yet fragile -– transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power. The writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security. So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.
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. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.
3. President Obama made it clear that this situation is a highly unique situation. This seems to be a response to all those who wonder, “Why Libya?” “Why Libya when there are so many other places around the world that could be helped by US military intervention? “Why Libya and not the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur in Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Zimbabwe, Iran, or Tibet?” To these questions President Obama answers, “Because this situation represents a unique coming together of various factors.” What are these factors?
3a. The formation of an international coalition of nations, as well as NATO, willing to work together to establish a no-fly zone so that Qaddafi can not use his military air power against citizens on the ground. It is not always possible to gain such a consensus, and to get one that includes two Arab nations is even more rare. Also, the relative quickness with which this coalition was formed is another example of the uniqueness of this situation. The intervention in the former Yugoslavia (which has often been used as a comparison), for instance, took a year to achieve, as President Obama pointed out. This is not a case of American imperialism and/or arrogance, cowboy politics, or a decision frowned upon by the rest of the world. Rather, we are part of a multitude of nations (mainly European) who have decided together that this route is appropriate. This consensus has not been reached in those other places. (Why such a consensus hasn’t been reached in these other places is another question. There are critics who point out their lack of oil, which Libya has plenty of, and the relatively dark color of skin of the people in many of those other places. How is it that intervention never seems legitimate when it is black people being massacred, they ask.)
3b. We were asked to help and people there are happy we came. We did not impose ourselves upon Libya or stick our nose where we weren’t wanted. Rather, we are desperately wanted by people who have tried nonviolent protest and been met with extreme violence. They do not have the capabilities to resist and required international assistance to avoid slaughter. This is not the US going into Iraq. The situation is fundamentally different because of points 3a and 3b.
3c. President Obama went out of his way to point out that the US will not send in ground troops. We will, if all goes well, avoid any American casualties in this intervention. It will not cost much in American resources or soldiers. Also, NATO will take over tomorrow. Our main role will be completed. We are not entering a drawn out war. We simply made it impossible for Qaddafi to kill masses of civilians. The hard work of constructing a functioning and relatively just society will not be our burden. It will be the burden of Libyans and international organizations. This is, President Obama wanted to be clear, not Iraq.
It was not in our national interest to let that [the destruction of Benghazi] happen. I refused to let that happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.
We struck regime forces approaching Benghazi to save that city and the people within it. We hit Qaddafi’s troops in neighboring Ajdabiya, allowing the opposition to drive them out. We hit Qaddafi’s air defenses, which paved the way for a no-fly zone. We targeted tanks and military assets that had been choking off towns and cities, and we cut off much of their source of supply. And tonight, I can report that we have stopped Qaddafi’s deadly advance.
In this effort, the United States has not acted alone. Instead, we have been joined by a strong and growing coalition. This includes our closest allies -– nations like the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey –- all of whom have fought by our sides for decades. And it includes Arab partners like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who have chosen to meet their responsibilities to defend the Libyan people.
To summarize, then: In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners. To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians. It took us 31 days.
It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country -– Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.
3d. This is, to me, the most interesting part of President Obama’s speech. Obama used the word “genocide” once; he did not apply it directly to the situation in Libya, “massacre” was his word of choice, but he did use it in an indirect way. He declared he would not wait until mass graves were discovered before acting. Rwanda Pt. II was not going to happen on his watch. This is especially interesting to me because 1) it is not clear how this could be have been a “genocide” considering those being killed were not targeted for race, ethnicity, or religion, and 2) because the phrase “Never Again” has been an ignored mantra ever since WWII as genocide after genocide have occurred since the 1940′s. Obama, it seems, is the first one to take this mantra seriously.
He made mention multiple times of avoiding “massacre.” He even went out of his way to say that Qaddafi called the opposition “rats” that he would hunt down from house to house. When studying genocides in the twentieth century one quickly discovers that an early tactic of persons who eventually orchestrate a genocide is to label people vermin to begin the process of dehumanization. For instance, Jews in Germany were portrayed as rats and Tutsis in Rwanda were called cockroaches. When President Obama heard this language and saw the early signs of the violence he determined quickly that “Never Again” must become a set of actions rather than just a catch phrase. Most politicians, American or otherwise, take the long road to intervention and we often look back, shake our heads, and say, “Never again.” President Obama refused to let that happen again, and so he acted.
At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice. Qaddafi declared he would show “no mercy” to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we have seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we wanted — if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.
At the end of the day, then, President Obama’s speech was a standard example of American political moral logic. The responsibility that comes with power was a major theme, but only as long as it aligns with American political and economic interests. He went out of his way to make it clear that this situation is different from previous ones, and, therefore, implied that it is inappropriate to compare it to past American mistakes (primarily Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, as I see it). But he did provide a unique twist by seeming to be one of the first to act decisively at the earlier signs of the potential mass killing of civilians as a political tactic. While “genocide” proper was probably not a real option, serious crimes against humanity were, at least as Obama interpreted the situation. Facing this situation he decided to act, while minimizing American responsibility and involvement by acting in accord with an international coalition, to prevent the production of mass graves.
So, how do we assess this argument? It seems to me that he will not have satisfied his isolationist critics, and the idea of American interests is defined so broadly that those who wonder whether this is actually in America’s interests will still do so. However, he seems to have done a good job demonstrating the uniqueness of the Libyan situation. And his concerns about preventing mass killing may make him the most serious defender of human rights we’ve seen in a president in awhile (and if he’s right about the extent to which Qaddafi would kill his citizens and this intervention proves to be successful, he may have actually earned that Nobel Peace Prize). The problem, of course, is there’s no way to no for sure what has been prevented.
Enduring questions that still must be asked and answered are:
1. What are the moral implications of engaging in purely air combat? There has been much literature, even from military folks, questioning the morality of killing others with almost no risk to one’s own people. Much of this literature has been based on reflections on the intervention in the former Yugoslavia.
2. I’m still not clear on whether this intervention would have occurred if there were no American interests involved. It is clearly not only an intervention for moral reasons. Do these reasons of interest carry so much weight that the moral considerations are really just window dressing? And, if so, how does this affect the way we interpret those moral justifications?
3. President Obama claimed that multiple “nonviolent” options were tried and failed before deciding to use military force. We must always wonder, in my opinion, whether we actually reached a “last resort” before engaging in violence. Was there anything more that could have been done to avoid the use of violence?
4. Does the request for help from people justify intervention? If it does, what are the implications for American foreign policy going forward?
5. Finally, from a Christian perspective, how does intervention fit into the just war tradition? There are people working on this question, but it is not yet clear to me that there is an accepted answer to this question. Also, does President Obama’s appeal to preventing “massacre” have any weight for those Christians committed to absolute nonviolence? If so, would a confession of guilt make such an intervention more palatable? And finally, how does this intervention fit within the emerging paradigms of “just peacemaking” and “just policing” being advocated by scholars such as Glen Stassen, Gerald Schlabach, and Tobias Winright?