President Obama’s speech last night concerning the United States’ intervention in Libya was deeply disturbing. Not only did the president fail to adequately address the lingering questions regarding the situation at hand, but his proposals for the future uses of the American military offer greatly expanded missions without coherent ties to either vital national interests and/or the additional resources necessary to meet broader mandates. Most alarmingly, President Obama’s remarks reinforce a continuing imbalance between the Executive and Legislative branches of government—an imbalance that favors the bureaucratic offices of the Executive branch at the expense of oversight and accountability.
U.S. policy regarding Libya remains bereft of coherent objectives or endstates. According to President Obama, U.S. military intervention was/is justified by the protection of civilians and the imprimatur of an international coalition. The “conscience of the world” demanded action. Now, assumption of operational command by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and leadership by other partners are not only desirable, but purportedly advance the American interests that were so threatened as to require the commitment of American lives. Unfortunately, every tenet of the president’s Libya policy lacks coherence:
· The Responsibility to Protect—President Obama’s claim that the United States has an enduring interest in protecting foreign civilian lives through military intervention opens the United States to either (a) charges of hypocrisy or (b) the quick exhaustion of resources. The president attempted to preempt this argument by saying that the United States would not react to every humanitarian crisis, but he in no way showed how the Libyan case is any more dire or important than other contemporary crises. Why does the protection of Libyans demand the commitment of U.S. armed force, while Ivorians wage bloody street battles, Zimbabweans suffer under the oppressive rule of Mugabe, and Congolese live in a Bermuda Triangle of human misery and conflict? Is the supposed humanitarian crisis of refugee flows to Tunisia and Egypt (two supposedly reforming states) more detrimental than Ivorian refugee flows to the likes of Ghana and Liberia (two of Africa’s most successful nascent democracies)? President Obama’s answers were simply insufficient, as they hinged on justifications of multinational collaboration and an ability to intervene, rather than American interests. Are we to assume that an American conception of the sanctity of civilian life hinges on the importance placed on the same by other collaborative states? Should we really place such interpretations at the mercy of the Italians (steadfast supporters of Qaddafi until the tide was nearly out,) the French, the Chinese, and—even more incredulously—the Arab states? Furthermore, does anyone really believe that the United States military would be less able to successfully conduct operations in other regions of the world, particularly littoral states?
· Coalition-building—Since at least the First Gulf War (1990-1991), the United States has attached a specious importance to the acquiescence of large coalitions in justifying U.S. military action. Even worse, since 2001, our government inaccurately portrays the contributions and commitments of such coalition members. Take, for example, President Obama’s references last night to the strong support of Arab states, as exemplified by the Arab League’s support of a no-fly zone and the willingness of countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirate (UAE) to provide forces. Left unmentioned was the Arab League’s condemnation of the actual implementation of the no-fly zone, and the scarcity of Arab aircraft over Libyan skies. Such reliance on coalitions becomes even more problematic when one considers the partners involved and their competing interests. UAE’s support to protect civilians in the Libyan affair is supposedly noble, but its commitment of ground forces to help the Bahraini monarchy quell popular risings by the country’s majority Shia is (fill in the blank)? Coalitions built on ephemeral concepts like the “responsibility to protect” are inherently more unstable than those built on shared security concerns.
· NATO—One tenet of the president’s speech justified our Libyan intervention by arguing that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s commitment would allow U.S. intervention to be temporary and limited in nature. Before accepting that premise, observers should revisit the purpose and health of NATO. Lest anyone forget, NATO is a defensive alliance chartered primarily to protect continental European security (and, by extension, U.S. security interests) from a Soviet threat. Nowhere does the alliance’s mandate call for it to be the implementing or enforcing arm of United Nations’ decisions. NATO’s commitment of military force (and, by extension, the command of military forces) is predicated on a security threat and the consensus of alliance members that such a threat exists, which then justifies collective action. Neither tenet exists in regard to Libya’s civil war. No case has been made that the security of any alliance member has been threatened by Libyan governmental action. Moreover, allied consensus hardly exists. Key NATO members have expressed significant reservations. Germany, as a current member of the United Nations’ Security Council (UNSC), even abstained from the UNSC resolution that allows intervention.
Apart from the absence of a security threat, NATO is simply a dysfunctional and dying entity. Though the alliance ostensibly focuses on collective security (with an emphasis, at least historically and by number of members, on European security), the overwhelming majority of members consistently fails to meet minimum defense spending goals. Collective defense increasingly means American-provided defense under the guise of collective legitimacy. NATO headquarters elements are dominated by the U.S. military, and one need only compare the vast disparity between U.S. air/missile strikes in Libya compared to all other alliance members combined to support the assertion that NATO, rather than a collective security alliance, is increasingly a tool of legitimization for certain members’ actions.
Beyond the situation in Libya, President Obama’s comments set dangerous new parameters for the commitment of U.S. military forces. According to him, threats to “our common humanity and our common security” (including, but not limited to: responding to natural disasters, preventing genocide, keeping the peace, ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce) are enough to justify American action, to include military action. One wonders, however, to what common humanity or security he refers. Is it one that includes China, Russia, Brazil, India, and Germany—all countries that abstained from the decision to justify military action in Libya? Are citizens of Bahrain, Syria, Ivory Coast, Sudan et al. not entitled to the protections of such common security? If it, in fact, exists, shouldn’t all countries be responsible for protecting “our common humanity”, or do we continue to allow some states to amass vast financial reserves while the United States mires itself in increasing levels of debt and commitment?
Domestically, the president’s address raises two existential questions: who decides when it is important enough to intervene, and who carries the burden of sacrifice for such interventions? Few Americans would argue that the president, as the commander-in-chief, does not have the authority to commit U.S. military forces to action. In emergency and exigent circumstances, the president may have to act unilaterally. However, in specifically delegating to Congress the power to declare war, one wonders if our Founding Fathers intended to give the Executive branch the power to commit U.S. forces wherever and whenever a single individual (the president) decides it is necessary to save civilians. Such overarching control of a nation’s military reeks of monarchical power more than it reflects the checks and balances demanded in our Constitution. Congress, as both legislators and representatives, has the responsibility to mandate such action. One hopes that future congresses will be less complacent in living-up to such responsibility.
Finally, if our representatives in Congress assembled find that such future actions are in the nation’s interest, a more equitable distribution of the sacrifices are in order. Increasingly, the U.S. military is treated more as a mercenary force that operates solely at the behest of the president, rather than as a profession sworn to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The U.S. Government continually turns to approximately 2% of the population to achieve U.S. military objectives, and a slightly larger percentage (when one includes military family members) to bear the sacrifices associated with U.S. policies. Such a system neglects not only our Founders’ intentions (which held standing militaries extremely suspect), but also neglects the foundation of shared commitment that, theoretically, is one basis of our liberal democracy. In the end, all may not be required to sacrifice equally, but the notion that the overwhelming majority are not called upon to sacrifice at all is unsustainable.