April 19, 2011
An invasion on false pretense, unlawful detention, torture, and privacy violations seemed to contradict everything America stood for, and thus the Bush era became – indeed still is – a point of shame for all sound-minded Americans.
That shame, fortunately, left America mindful of avoiding a repeat; a more judicious application of power became the collective aim.
But shame also has the power to constrain irrationally, and in the American foreign policy context it has threatened to nurture a superpower reluctant to act decisively against global injustices.
This possibility was put to the test in Libya in February, when Muammar Gaddafi began laying waste to his own people. By then, the definition of just force in the court of global opinion had narrowed to the degree that nearly any use of force against tyranny would be extremely unpopular.
In employing force, America has made clear it has retained the confidence to risk being unpopular to do what it feels is right. That’s leadership. That’s the American way.
This of course thoroughly displeases America’s enemies, who were hoping that Obama’s America would cut tyranny and religious extremists and any other force not aligned with western interests a little slack.
In not getting their wish they have been quick to portray Libya as another Iraq. That’s wholly inaccurate. Other than the fact that America is seeking to depose a ruthless dictator in the Arab world who possesses large oil reserves, there are few parallels. Obama is not going it alone; he has followed international consensus, including a number of Arab countries. The coalition is not an occupying force. It is not falsely claiming that Gaddafi possesses weapons of mass destruction and is a threat to the world.
And while the motive of the international community’s involvement in Libya is subject to debate, the morality of the objection behind it also deserves scrutiny. For the truth is a good portion of the world seriously doesn’t care that innocent Libyans are being slaughtered, so long as Washington butts out and national “sovereignty” is respected. (A state is not truly sovereign unless the dignity and liberty of its citizens are protected.) You get this from African leaders like Yoweri Museveni, who rush to Gaddafi’s defense because he’s a dictator like them and they fear their fate may mirror his; you get it from Muslims, who do so because Gaddafi’s a fellow Muslim.
What frustrates them is that Washington won’t entertain their disingenuous complaints, that Washington hasn’t over-invested in the notion of being popular, which was a very real possibility coming out of the Bush years, when popularity was in short supply and was costing America in terms of soft power and perceptions of legitimacy. Indeed you can’t very well claim to be a force of democracy if you don’t adhere to some degree to popular opinion.
But American involvement in Libya communicates an understanding that notions of power, morality and legitimacy involve other considerations as well, considerations that need take precedence over the jaundiced disapproval of adversaries.