Friday, March 25, 2011

Is Obama Consistent on War?

A lot of people have been surprised that Obama was willing to launch military strikes on Libya. They should not be. When accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Norway, Obama gave a long speech discussing issues of war and peace. After reviewing the speech, it is very clear that Obama's actions in Libya are entirely consistent with the principles he laid out in his speech. I've included some relevant sections:

Obama: "We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

Historians will look back on 2011 as an enormously important year in world history. The spread of non-violent revolutions throughout the Arab world has been remarkable and unpredictable. Gaddafi was the first despot to resort to heavy military force to crush the civilian protesters. If left unchecked, that precedent could easily break this wave of revolution, as subsequent despots would be more willing to crush their rebellions with military force. Obama spoke of times when force is necessary and morally justified; if not in Libya, then when?

Obama: "In many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower...[but] the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving peace."

Indeed, there is a deep ambivalence toward military action even among many American citizens today. We must remember that history is a guide, not a blueprint. It is easy to make the mistake of over-learning the lessons of history. A useful example: WW-1 started in part because the belligerents were very nationalistic and almost eager to go to war. The world realized what a costly and pointless endeavor the war was after the fact. In response, France and Britain moved too far in the other direction. In the 1930s the West refused to consider military force, having learned the lessons of WW-1, while Hitler rearmed Germany.

Similarly, is tempting after the excesses and mistakes of the Bush years to swear off foreign adventures. We must recognize that the alternative to the unilateral, preemptive, and costly exploits of the Bush administration is not swearing off foreign intervention altogether. Rather, the alternative is to adopt approaches that are multilateral, based on existing threats, and modest.

Obama: "I believe that all nations -- strong and weak alike -- must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I -- like any head of state -- reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don't.

Furthermore, America -- in fact, no nation -- can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don't, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.

And this becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.

I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That's why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace."

It is clear that Obama reserves unilateral military action for direct threats to the United States. Libya poses almost no direct threat to the US, and this is why Obama did not unilaterally impose a no-fly zone earlier in the conflict. Also relevant for the Libyan situation: Obama questions how to protect civilians from their own governments, answering that force can be justified in those situations. He cites the Balkans as an example, which has many obvious parallels to Libya.

Obama: "America's commitment to global security will never waver. But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. America alone cannot secure the peace...Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice. That's why NATO continues to be indispensable. That's why we must strengthen U.N. and regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few countries."

After a decade of mostly Anglo-led war in Afghanistan and Iraq, many people have questioned the relevance of even NATO, with the relevance of the UN been thrown to the wayside a long time ago. The way Obama has prosecuted the effort in Libya has served to re-legitimize both NATO and the United Nations. If we can prove that a multilateral approach to world problems can work, we open the door for stronger efforts in the future. This has obvious benefits of taking the focus away from America.

Obama: "...within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists -- a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world...There's no simple formula here. But we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time.

The state of discourse in the United States reflects this false choice. The neoconservative Bush-era camp would have us embark on endless campaigns to impose our values around the world. These people balk at the prospect of multilateral action, and considered any international support to be little more than a bonus. Alternatively, with the rise of the Tea Party, there is a new isolationist camp that seems to believe we should never intervene anywhere. These people are over-reacting to the failures of the Bush administration.

We do not need to fall into this trap. The proper reaction to Bush's foreign policy failures is not an absence of foreign policy. It is a balanced foreign policy, one that cannot be reduced to a simple formula. It may call for interventions in some areas but not others. People may be frustrated by a president who allows himself to see the world in shades of grey. Viewing the world in black-and-white has the satisfaction of purity, I will admit. The real historical lesson of the Bush era is that falling into a position of ideological inflexibility leads to disaster; that is one mistake Obama has yet to make.

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