I, like many others, have found myself unable to turn away from the Arab revolutions. As a strong believer in the egalitarian nature of the Muslim religion, and a fervent critic of common assumptions about Arabs and Muslims, these revelations were a welcome confirmation of my beliefs. I also hate dictators.
As such, I never had, and still have, no love for Libya’s clown Colonel, Mu’ammar Qaddafi; and like any other person of conscience, I watched with heavy heart as his armies approached liberated Benghazi. Every time I prayed, I included the people of Libya in my prayers, that they be given strength, freedom, and protection from harm.
And then, kind of, sort of, in the nick of time, France, Britain, and the United States obtained a Security Council resolution—forwarded for debate by Lebanon, whose government was formed by Hezbollah, a convenient ally this time—and began devastating Qaddafi’s forces before they could effect a likely mass slaughter in Benghazi.
But the timing was also the least bit troubling. On pretty much the same day in March 2003, the United States went to war with Saddam Hussein, alleging that he had weapons of mass destruction (he didn’t). And one century ago this year, the Italians seized Libya from the Ottomans, depriving that crumbling empire of its last African territory. Still, in many ways, the Libyan intervention appeared to solve many of the problems of previous interventions, or non-interventions.
In Iraq, in 2003, we didn’t have a Security Council resolution and there was no imminent danger of mass slaughter. We waited for too long in Bosnia, and tens of thousands were slaughtered. UN peacekeepers could do nothing to prevent the killing of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. And in Rwanda, by the time it was over, up to 1,000,000 were dead, and we had done nothing; but we had no regional mandate to act, and there was no army for us to destroy from the sky.
So does that mean I’m okay with this? Actually, no. And that’s a solid segue to the substance of the matter. Here are six reasons why I don’t feel right about Operation Odyssey Dawn:
1) Just because Obama is a Democrat doesn’t mean the Constitution allows him to go to war without consulting Congress—there’s simply no excuse for violating the democratic principle of checks and balances. If another President down the road starts a war without asking us, and then tries to explain him or herself a week later, is that supposed to make it okay? Let’s say it’s President Palin, and she wants to bomb a country more likely to hit back.
Supporters of the war against Qaddafi have argued that Obama intervened for humanitarian reasons. Perhaps he has, but there are troubling facts to consider. Explaining your actions after the fact does not constitute a valid check or balance. Anyone who was paying attention to the region knew that the Libyan rebels were in tremendous danger more than a week before the actual intervention began.
Considering that this did not drop out of nowhere, and everyone knew how brutal Qaddafi was, is, and would be against those who challenged him, why is it that President Obama couldn’t explain himself to the American people until a full week of war had passed? If it were a matter of an emergency humanitarian intervention, he should have stood up the minute the missiles started flying and explained why he hadn’t consulted the American people—because, as he saw it, there was no time.
Still more, making exceptions is a messy business. There are many court cases in which a defendant is clearly guilty, and yet we must throw out the case due to a violation of the rules of evidence. In individual instances, this creates injustices—we wish the judge could act with more discretion. But that discretion itself causes the greater danger; hence the wisdom of our political system. Because, in the aggregate, the presence of such checks and balances ensures a more just society for all; maybe not immediately, but over time.
So too with our government and our foreign policy. While, yes, it is true that consulting with Congress may have caused us to intervene far too late, or not at all, this intervention sets a terrible precedent. The President cannot simply start a war on the grounds that he and his advisers thought that there was a humanitarian crisis, and then only bother to explain it to us shortly before Dancing with the Stars. If the crisis were so grievously serious, he could have laid out his case, told Congress the time to act was now, and trusted in the humanity of his fellow Americans.
This belief that only he and his circle know what’s right is, at the very least, elitist; it’s not dissimilar from the Republicans’ insistence on prosecuting the war in Iraq even after the 2006 elections, when the American people made it clear that they wanted out. Are the American people really that irrelevant, that you can wait a full week to bother to tell us why you got us into another war before we’re even out of Iraq and Afghanistan?
2) I am rightly made uneasy by conflicts with no obvious goal. The United States, like every other institutional body that has interests in the region, is deeply confused, and trying to hide that. Only a few months ago, our Vice President was denying that Mubarak was a dictator. Now our government is arguing that we must intervene to get rid of a tyrant in the region—the same tyrant we were recently trying to lure with carrots (while hedging as to whether that’s the purpose of our war).
Moreover, if the purpose of the Security Council resolution is to protect civilians, the only way in which we can do that is with boots on the ground or tons of guns. The problem is, we have no crystal ball. We can destroy Qaddafi’s armor, but he will have forces operating within cities, and those most loyal to him may fight to the bitter end (see also: Iraq). The rebels don’t have any military capacity, and Qaddafi’s army could as of now easily wipe them out.
It is plausible that Qaddafi’s tribesmen may still reach Benghazi, at which point we will have to escalate our war to save Benghazi (again). Our options at that point would be arming the rebels, landing troops to finish the job, bombing the Qaddafis out of Libya, or splitting Libya into two separate countries, with peacekeepers patrolling the boundary between them (oil goes to the east); or walking away after it’s even more screwed up. And imagine how that would play out.
3) Why is it that we can intervene in other countries but find it so hard to intervene in our own? The Obama administration must tell us every day how much this so-called “kinetic action” is costing the American people. I’m also wondering how much of this we’re going to be able to afford, and when this cycle might end. Do we, the American people, also believe that once this is over—let’s say successfully, with Qaddafi gone—we’ll simply walk away? It’s too easy not to, until the next thing you know you get a bill far larger than you expected. (In that case, wars are like cell phones.)
We have a right to know just how much can be spent on uncertain military objectives, and it would be nice to know whether that much money could be spent, without consulting Congress, on the betterment of the condition of the American people. The roads around my apartment need repair. Can we get NATO to send some army engineers in? New York City also desperately needs new airports, which I’m sure we could build up at least partway, and then address the American people as to why we were forced to build it without clearing it first; after all, New York is vital to the American and global economy.
If we’re going to transgress certain democratic principles, at the very least we should do so in our own clear and obvious interest. Or maybe it’s just me.
4) This intervention only drives us further into a negative conversation with the Muslim world and the Middle East. Over and over again, we insist that we are not the world’s policeman, and yet we get involved in police actions with astonishing regularity. We intervene selectively, we make huge mistakes, but we insist our intentions are good. I recall something about a certain road being paved with good intentions, but it must not be an American road, since it’s so hard to get those paved these days.
The United States was able to eliminate Libyan air defense systems in days, and this wasn’t even a full-scale war. Qaddafi has been revealed to be as impotent as Saddam, with an army that can be picked off as so many inert targets in a videogame you have a cheat code for. I’m sure many Arabs and Muslims across the region watched this and thought two things: what exactly was the point of independence, if some 60 years later a country has no actual capacity to defend itself? And, given that, why is it Western powers are still rescuing Arabs or Muslims, as they see it, on their own terms?
5) Let’s not pretend that this is truly an allied operation. We’re doing all the heavy lifting; and even if we didn’t want to, it wouldn’t work out any other way. (Can you see America agreeing to put its troops under French command?) The only Muslim majority country with any real military capacity is Turkey—the only Muslim democracy with guns in this fight—and Turkey was deeply hesitant to get involved. Even after the war started, we still had to fight (diplomatically) to get Turkey onboard.
While Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have loaned out fighter planes, they’re probably going to make, at best, a miniscule contribution; and neither are democracies that, theoretically, have to consult their people about their entanglements. And, while the Arab League has endorsed the Security Council resolution, let us not confuse the Arab League for a democratic body that speaks for the majority of its peoples. In fact, the majority of the Arab League was or is currently experiencing democratic uprisings in one form or another.
6) It’s time for the Arab and Muslim-majority world to get its act together, and Western intervention only delays the inevitable. It’s simply unacceptable that there’s no broader security architecture to solve the region’s problems. If the Arab League were so insistent that a no-fly zone be established over Libya, it should have created one itself and put its own armies and monies at risk. If the OIC’s desire to develop an Islamic solidarity is genuine, then they have to prove it. Either option sounds absurd to us right now, and why shouldn’t they? What’s the long-term trajectory of these democratic revolutions? How will they be protected? How will they achieve legitimacy?
And how long will Western powers be responsible for Libya?
Libya isn’t Bosnia; there’s no NATO and no EU to welcome the new governments down the road, to give them benchmarks to work towards and real rewards for realizing those benchmarks. We need to stop enabling Arab and Muslim political inertia. The Arab and Muslim world needs to figure out how to solve its own problems. Too often, its consultative bodies are reduced to irrelevant bystanders, its local powers unable to have civil dialogue with one another (see: Bahrain), and its biggest problems all but ask for foreign intervention since there’s no local mechanism to resolve the conflict before it explodes out of all proportion.
Haroon Moghul is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is also Executive Director of The Maydan Institute, a consulting and communications project devoted to enhancing understanding between Muslims and the West.
This article was published by Religion Dispatches on March 31, 2011.
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