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Libyan Intervention: Another Example of Rational Humanitarian Foreign Policy

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I don’t write a lot about foreign policy, simply because I think there are far more intelligent and knowledgeable people out there writing much more cogent analysis, but it’s hard to ignore the reflexive criticism of all things Obama that comes from certain elements of the principled left.

Although I’m no longer surprised that some Americans seem to have a better grasp of events in Libya than reporters, government officials, those with access to military satellites and other international observers on the ground in Libya, it might make their case against WESTERN IMPERIALISM a bit stronger if they could back their assertion that the situation was “trumped up” by the US government.

I think it’s fair to say that Obama overstated the danger–but I’d suggest that was more the result of a lack of clarity about the situation than some grand, Western plot to rule the world. It turns out that moral clarity and perfect vision are much easier in hindsight.

It’s also pretty clear if Obama and NATO had not intervened, the same “principled left” would be accusing the West of discrimination in its disregard for Africa. The truth is that we waited too long in the Balkans and failed to intervene at all in Rwanda—two other situations in which early, decisive intervention would have made the difference. Obama didn’t wait, and as a result, prevented worse harm befalling the Libyan people.

And it was going to be bad, as Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski notes:

[W]e should acknowledge what could be happening in eastern Libya right now had Qaddafi’s forces continued their march. The dozens of burned out tanks, rocket launchers, and missiles bombed at the eleventh hour on the road to Benghazi would have devastated the rebel stronghold if Qaddafi’s forces had been able to unleash them indiscriminately, as they did in other, smaller rebel-held towns, like Zawiyah, Misrata, and Adjabiya. Qaddafi’s long track-record of arresting, torturing, disappearing, and killing his political opponents to maintain control suggests that had he recaptured the east, a similar fate would have awaited those who supported the opposition there.

I don’t celebrate the death of anyone, but it’s hard to feel terribly sad about the fact that the Colonel is no longer in a position which allows him to torture and kill indiscriminately. Eventually, people rise up to  take down despots. It’s often ugly, even brutal, but it will happen—and I’d prefer a national security policy which works to prevent those people from being slaughtered.

In the end, the US and NATO did an admirable job. They used a relatively inexpensive mission which gave the rebels breathing room in which they could defend themselves against a despot. And then the people of Libya did the rest. We can’t know what kind of government or future Libya will have, but I think we can be sure that it will be better than the past two generations.

Following eight years of disastrous foreign policy, this was another sign that the Obama administration is simply far more competent when it comes to national security and military issues than the previous administration. In less than three years, he’s overseen the elimination of Osama bin Laden, led the effort towards killing of some of his chief deputies, drawn up firm plans to finally end Bush’s destructive war in Iraq, and done his best to navigate the complex issues of the Arab spring and its aftermath.

Certainly, Obama has made some mistakes and done some things that I absolutely oppose, but it’s hard not to see that his administration moving the US back towards rational national security policy based on both humanitarian need and national interest.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

44 Comments

  • Prudence requires that I wait to see what the new Libyan democrats do with their future. It’s pretty hard to call this a success (or failure) at this point until the consequences are realized. Just my humble (and expressly ignorant) opinion.

    But one thing is true; one less Qaddafi in the world can’t hurt.

    • Dave, I think you’re misusing your words here. There was an inordinate amount of ballyhoo on the pLeft about how this administration was assisting NATO in regime change. SOS Clinton as much as said that the American objective was to remove Kahdahfee (no one can spell it satisfactory so why not just get phonetic?). I’d call the events of the last two days a pretty big “success” in that objective. A strong-man dictator is dead. I’m not happy with that, but assign most of the blame to an idiot thieving wealthy asshole who refused to leave the country when he could have and has now been beaten to death because of it.

      I have to ask, though. What would make this a “success” or “failure” to you?

  • Well, Rob, I don’t think I misusing the word at all. It’s true that the objective was met as far as removing Qaddafi but I’m not sure if that was, in fact, the objective in which the endeavor was originally billed. Seems to me the objective was to protect innocents from the slaughter of a despot. So, to answer your question, I guess I would call success if the people of Libya can affect change that simply doesn’t replace one despotic regime with another. We won’t know for several years.

  • Though I think the American idea of ‘despotic regimes’ remains somewhat skewed, I do agree with you. However, neither of our complaints really alters the thesis of Pogie’s post.

    • Alas, in the words of wise fellow I follow “where you stand depends on where you sit.” You know that I’m no hand-wringer seeing every American action as liberal democracy hegemony (read neoconservatism) and, to that extent, I can’t argue with Pogie. But I’ll stick to my guns that the outcomes either for the Libyans and/or America’s standing in world opinion have yet to be written. It often seems that no good turn goes unpunished, nes pas?

  • Nice to know you taken on classic knee-jerk bashing of “principled left.” Makes it easy to dismiss pretty much everything else you said in your piece.

    Do you teach your students to genericize their opponents as they prep for debate? Or do you just reserve those tactics for moments when “there are far more intelligent and knowledgeable people out there” to debate?

    • Here’s the rule. You can ignore substantive discussion and personalize all you like as long as you’re brave enough to use your real name. As long as you hide under a pseudonym, you’re not welcome to post that kind of content here.

      You want to personalize arguments, have the courage to use your name. That’s my rule. If you have questions about it, I’ll try to clarify as best I as I can.

      By the way, I missed your post celebrating Senator Tester’s vote on the Obama jobs bill the other day. You must have been busy.

      • Comment removed. Those without the courage to use their names don’t get to make personal attacks. I have no problem with the use of pseudonyms, but only when they are used to protect one’s identity for legitimate reasons. –DAP

        • (I can’t believe that I’m actually going to type this!)

          In defense of JC, he really does feel that he has reasons to protect his identity. I can tell you for true, they ain’t good ones, but … So does jhwygirl who has now 3 times accused ‘friendlies’ of threatening her and driven them away on account.

          Unfortunately, setting rules based on the often wacky ideas of others probably doesn’t work. I’m not requesting any change in your behavior at your own property. I’m just giving you something more to consider.

          • I’ve got no problem with the use of pseudonyms. I think readers will make their own judgement about people who use them–and some probably have every reason to do so.

            I’m just not going to let unnamed posters attack those who actually risk their reputations by posting in the first place and responding to personal attacks after.

        • There was no personal attack in my comment. I simply stated that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

          And then answered your question about Tester’s vote.

          • “JC”, given your own behavior in the Montana online over the last year, I posit that you wouldn’t understand the difference between a personal attack and a disagreement if it stepped up and bit you in the butt. So it’s remarkably cheeky, on many levels, for you to presume to tell another what is personal attack and what isn’t. In your world, what is good for the goose has never been good for the gander.

            Feel free to call this observation a “rant” …

    • Wow JC, I know someone has a really strong argument against Don’s positions when they jump straight into speculative attacks on how he does his job.

  • Don, if you’re going to disallow personal attacks by anonymous commenters, might you want to disallow personal attacks by named commenters and posters on the anonymous?

    Because if you don’t, you might as well just ban anonymous commenters here as well. You’re just using flame bait to invite commenters like myself in to get beaten up on, with no ability to respond in kind. Not hardly fair.

    Then again, maybe this is the tactic, to run those who criticize the center from the left out of the mainstream blogs. Afterall, that’s what Kaley did over at LitW. And I’m unable to post unmoderated at MTCG, which is why I’ll never comment there again.

    I guess censorship of dissent is the new progressivism. You’ve got my email Don. If you want me to just go away, I will.

    • That is total and utter BS, “JC”. You were informed at LITW, quite clearly, that if you couldn’t accept disagreement, if you couldn’t handle the fact that there are those who accept and support Democrats, or websites that do so, if you couldn’t actually accept that you might be wrong then you should leave such venues. Your response was a mewling whine about how I should delete your account because you can’t face any of the above.

      Exactly how was that “censorship”, “JC”? It wasn’t. It isn’t. Yet somehow the world is unfair because others won’t do what you think you have the right to tell them to do. Sorry, kitten. Your ego is not that impressive to how others live their lives or express themselves. You’ve had every opportunity to respond to those who disagree with you. You’re just very poor at it and blame others on account.

    • No, it’s entirely different.

      When you engage in a flame war with someone using a pseudonym, you don’t have anything to lose. There won’t be any damage to your reputation, because no one knows who you are.

      My rule is simple: if you want to discuss issues, a pseudonym is fine. If you want to attack people on personal levels, you have to use your name.

      It’s my rule–and one that will allow me to keep blogging without being so frustrated. If you can’t follow those rules or deal with my deleting personal comments, I suggest you go somewhere else.

      You certainly have the ability to respond, if you have the courage to use your name. Why should those of us who do–who have just as much to lose as you do–be subjected to personal attacks from those without names? *That* is what is unfair.

      You might also make a better case here if 4and20blackbirds didn’t also delete comments. You and I both know you have, so please don’t play the marginalized victim card.

      • I have never deleted a comment of your Don. But you have a dual standard here. THIS PORTION OF THE COMMENT WAS DELETED BECAUSE IT CONTAINED A PERSONAL ATTACK. IN THE FUTURE, I’M NOT GOING TO INVEST THE ENERGY NECESSARY TO EDIT INDIVIDUAL PORTIONS OF COMMENTS.–DAP So personal attacks by the named are fine. Wow.

        I’m not making a case about the nature of your rules for engagement. Just that you choose to apply them differentially to your friends and your foes.

        • As far as I know, you haven’t deleted any of my comments at 4and20. That wasn’t my assertion. You do *know*, though, that you guys do delete comments. Why I don’t have the same right on my site is awfully difficult to understand.

          The rules are exactly the same for everyone. If you use your real name, you can comment how you like–as long as you’re not breaking the law.

          If you use a pseudonym, there are additional restrictions. That seems fair to me, and actually quite sensible.

          You don’t have any particular right to attack other people, their character or motives on this, or any site–and you certainly don’t have the right to do it without repercussions.

          Want to insult me or someone else? Use your name. That simple. Entirely equitable.

          I’d prefer to be able to discuss these ideas, because I think it’s productive to learn from people with whom you disagree. If you can follow my simple request, you’re more than welcome to participate here.

  • Back on topic –

    It’s also useful to point out that regardless of what happens in Libya now, it is very, very unlikely to kill four thousands Americans or cost us a trillion dollars. When viewed objectively, Libya and Iraq posed about equal threats to the US (which is to say, a very low level of threat to us but a reasonably high threat to the people around them). For less than one percent the cost of the war and Iraq and without the thousands of casualties, Obama dealt with the threat. The fact that it worked is a demonstration of the difference between rationale foreign policy and the sort of foolhardiness we suffered through for eight years of George Bush.

    Obama waited for the right moment – he responded to an opportunity rather than attacking at random. He waited to remove a dangerous man until there was some group to take control that already had support from a segment of the population, and which already excercised a degree of control over part of the country. He acted multilaterally. He relied on local actors to do the majority of the actual fighting – keeping our troops off the ground minimizing the chances of alienating our local partners. And perhaps most importantly, he didn’t demand anything regarding how Libya looked after the fighting was over, thus reducing the impression of Imperialism.

    These aren’t stunning revelations in the world of foreign policy. They are common sense, something that has been lacking for eight years.

    • While realism has become a dirty word in some circles, I think this was a perfect example of it in practice. Obama evaluated the situation–and rather than making some theological justification for the war–chose to act at the right moment.

      It worked.

      While the future is certainly murky, this was an example of rational foreign policy based on results. It’s simply astonishing that those who were cheerleaders for the Iraq War have the gall to criticize this action.

      • It was a good… well thought out smackdown of a tyrant without hurting Americans, or putting Boots on the ground. We did the right thing and I wish the Libyans luck with there new found freedom!

        We are not hated there anymore, and I doubt they will hurt us in the future. In Fact they have been saying they wish to pay our expenses for that war… That’s a grateful nation!

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