The Discovery and Use of American Exceptionalism

There is more than irony in Obama's decision to attack Libya. The rationalization of the action speaks louder than the action itself. If the cause is humanitarian, then the question is what other oppressive dictators warrant missile and bombing attacks.  If the "claimed" justification is "broader international support" then the question is whether our military is supposed to place a higher loyalty to a global body like the UN than to our own elected representatives -- which were excluded from any deliberation.

Bush did not have to go to Congress to get its approval to attack Afghanistan or Iraq, but he did.  And Congress approved the use of the military with a greater majority than they did for his father in the first Gulf War.  The fact that many Democrats who voted for the war claimed they were duped when the war went bad is just simple moral cowardice.

But the premise for the use of the military was very different. Afghanistan was harboring a group of sophisticated militants who had just attacked the U.S. mainland and killed over 3,000 American citizens.  The premise for Iraq was deemed a similar threat, not because Saddam had any direct involvement in the 9/11 attacks, but because his weapons program and defiance of UN sanctions was considered a threat. At that time so soon after 9/11 this was a very rational conclusion.  Even though some of the intelligence proved wrong, the premise for the attack was to protect American interests by cutting off the supply of dangerous weapons to further terrorist attacks.

Bush changed the tone after the embarrassment of the missing stockpiles to a mission of nation building and humanitarian objectives.  These are wrongheaded objectives for military force.  There were in fact dual purpose production facilities for chemical and biological WMDs even though they failed to find any 'stock piles' of nuclear weapons.  Given how close Saddam was to nuclear success during the first Gulf war, the fear was rational even if the intelligence was flawed.  As Bush commented,  in the current world you cannot wait until the mushroom cloud is visible to take action.

Obama's action in Libya underlies the contrast and questions in foreign policy.  Is the US military to be used to accomplish objectives that are not a clear and present danger to American interests?  If humanitarian relief is an acceptable military objective should that be an objective of the American military command or the UN?  Should our objectives be determined by the UN or international authority or our own elected officials?

One has to question why we would select Libya for humanitarian military intervention, when the UN did nothing to stop the slaughter of over a half a million Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda.

Military force should be reserved to protect America from clear threats. This is not always a clear task. It requires substantial involvement in world affairs and a robust intelligence network to foresee problems like 9/11 before they happen. It also takes leadership who does not cover the harsh realities of the world we live in with juvenile ideologies and political pandering.

Humanitarian aid is one thing when it involves medical and food supplies to help in the case of natural disasters.  It is quite another when it comes in the form of cruise missiles. There is a distinct difference between a humanitarian mission and taking sides in a civil war.  Gaddafi is the evil we know, but the evil we do not know, a rebel uprising with possible Al Qaeda support, could be worse.

There is evil in the world and there will likely be a single dominant military power.  Given that the U.S. is an ethnically and religiously diverse country with a legal framework that holds the military accountable to elected civilians, we are the best choice to be that dominant power.  Foreign affairs is a difficult business, and we often have to pick a least worst solution from a list of awful choices.

WWII was the end result of seeking peace at all costs; isolationism and doing nothing can be the most dangerous course.  We can reject our country's natural leadership role in world affairs because of our mistakes and substantial imperfections or accept it because it is the best option we have.  But the most important part of finally acknowledging our power is to know when to use it...and when not to.

Henry Oliner blogs at