President Barack “Three Wars” Obama (Nixon, Reagan and even G.W. Bush could only dream of conducting three wars at once!) was unconvincing in making his case for war in Libya last night in his speech to the country. Of course, he side-stepped the constitutional war powers question – consulting with bipartisan Congressional leadership doesn’t cut the mustard, as even he knew before becoming president, as Bob Naiman of Just Foreign Policy recounted on Huffington Post.
And, as his predecessor loved to do, he mightily slew his own Straw Man, setting up and then knocking down the argument that because the U.S. can’t intervene militarily everywhere in the world where people are being brutally suppressed, we can’t intervene anywhere. I haven’t seen opponents or skeptics of the Libya intervention making that argument.
What I have seen is the hypocrisy and inconsistency of U.S. Middle East policy being challenged, most succinctly by The Daily Show’s devastating “America’s Freedom Packages” sketch last week. Without going into a huge laundry list of inconsistencies, how about this one – protesters are being killed in Bahrain and Yemen by U.S.-allied regimes, and I’ve heard of no calls for no-fly zones or even cutting off weapons to those regimes.
Some Libya war opponents claim the humanitarian justification for the intervention are bogus, that oil or some other U.S./Western imperial interest must really be behind this. That may well be true, but I don’t know that for certain. Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies thinks access to or domination of Libya’s oil is not the main reason for U.S./NATO intervention, as we have been buying oil from the Gaddafi government since 2003.
The problem is, because of a long history of imperial wars and military and foreign policies, the U.S., even under a president thought to be more peaceful and less unilateral than his predecessor, has little credibility left when it comes to waging war, especially when it selectively preaches nonviolence to some who seek democracy while arming others.
The awe-inspiring, mostly nonviolent, secular and entirely indigenous revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which captivated the world and inspired protest in other countries, were slow to receive support from President Three Wars and his Cabinet. As they embarrassingly fumbled for days (Vice-President Biden saying Egyptian President for Life Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opining that Mubarak really did have the interests of his people at heart) to get on the side of the people and the right side of history, I almost felt sorry for them (almost but not quite!).
What could they have said? The truth, that our foreign policy in the Middle East has been morally bankrupt and cynical for decades, and that we would gladly have kept supporting and arming Mubarak (as we had for thirty years) and his son (his chosen successor) ad infinitum had it not been for the heroic Tahrir Square protesters standing up and saying, “Enough!”? I’d love to have seen that speech!
At least the Administration is consistent, though in a bad way, in being slow to support nonviolent movements. It could have supported the initial nonviolent resistance campaign in Libya, as University of San Francisco Professor (and former Peace Action Education Fund board member) Stephen Zunes noted on truthout. It didn’t, choosing instead to support the armed rebels, perhaps missing a chance to intervene non-militarily before the armed conflict escalated.
But of course U.S. foreign policy is best summed up by Mark Twain’s adage, “When your only tools are hammers, all problems look like nails.”
In a rapidly changing world, one of whose dominant features is the decline of U.S. Empire, we need new tools. Offering rhetorical and material support to nonviolent democratic forces seeking emancipation from despots (especially ones the U.S. has supported) would be a great start. A serious commitment to emphasizing diplomacy and just economic development over military strategies, in Libya, Afghanistan, Palestine and Israel and many other countries, would do wonders to lessen armed conflict.
Shutting down the U.S. arms bazaar (we are the world’s number one weapons pusher, and weapons are the country’s number one manufactured export to the world) would do wonders for global peace and stability. While we’re at it, let’s take a look at our $1.2 trillion annual “national security” budget and 900 foreign military bases and consider how that is crippling our domestic economy by hoarding resources needed for human and environmental needs programs and job creation. Creating a standing United Nations peacekeeping force, under the aegis of the Secretary-General and not subject to the Security Council veto, is long overdue, and would have much more credibility than U.S./NATO or other “great power” militaries claiming to intervene for humanitarian purposes.
As long as the U.S. thwarts those and other needed changes in policy, we appear to be doomed to more wars, many to be justified as “humanitarian” in nature. My children, ages 17 and 13, think the U.S. is always at war, and of course they would, that has been true since they were old enough to be aware of such things, and it’s been true the overwhelming majority of the time since 1776. Isn’t it well past time for new tools?