The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Obama Undoctrine: A Response to My… Critic?

April 2, 2011

If I read him correctly, Armed Liberal thinks that I advanced an argument for intervening in Libya and that this makes some people who opposed the Iraq War a bunch of hypocrites.

Or that my description of Obama’s justifications are accurate and that those justifications don’t sufficiently distinguish Libya from Iraq.

I’m not entirely sure. Probably because I’m still kind of sick and I’m very tired.

Regardless, AL raises some key issues after quoting my post:

That kind of thing makes liberal hawks get all starry eyed. But what makes Libya different than most of the other places where tyrannical governments do nasty things to their citizens isn’t terribly Wilsonsian:
* Qaddafi’s rule over Libya is, on balance, a net negative for US interests;

* The US doesn’t care much for most of his friends either;

* He’s sitting on not insignificant fossil fuel deposits;

* He has no real support among the great powers; and

* The UK, US, and France really, really, really don’t like the guy

Well, gosh, that’s not very useful. because if that’s good policy, then invading Iraq made perfect sense – and as we all know, the smart kids have all determined that it made no sense (I’m remaining on the fence myself, but I’m neither smart nor a kid).

Here’s the issue; in my work I’m talking to people all the time about the difference between a strategy and a platitude. Platitudes sound a lot like strategies, but there’s a key difference – they don’t help shape action in a meaningful way. So just as science requires that a theory be falsifiable in order to be scientific, strategy has to cover certain actions and not others, and group actions into necessary, good, unnecessary and bad.

And unless the modern foreign-policy commentariat can a) make up a strategy that distinguishes Libya from Iraq (except by saying that for the fact that one is the product of a good president, and one the product of a bad one), or b) determine that Iraq was just as good a strategic idea as Libya – we’re flat out of strategies.

I  agree that, in some respects, Obama didn’t put an enormous amount of daylight between Libya and Iraq. He argued that the Libyan operation (1) is more multilateral in character, (2) doesn’t involve the deployment of major ground forces, and (3) conditions its success on outcomes short of regime change.

This last point struck many (or, at least me) as disingenuous, insofar as Obama made it pretty clear that the coalition wants Gaddafi gone. Thus, I’m not surprised to hear reports that the coalition is ramping up its covert and overt support for the rebels.

However, the more I think about these matters, the more I am convinced that Obama did—in substance if not  in his rhetoric—draw clear and sound distinctions between Libya and Iraq. Recognizing these distinctions, of course, does not require us to endorse either action. Rather, it assuages AL’s worry partisanship supplies the only warrant for disapproving of one but not the other.

1. The express justification for the Libyan intervention centers on preventing the imminent massacre of civilians and dissidents. This ties its legitimacy to responsibilitytoprotect norms. Although the Bush Administration invoked Saddam Hussein’s past campaigns of mass violence as grounds for the Iraq War, those campaigns had run their course by 2002. The major justifications for Iraq invoked rationales of preventive war (under the misleading label of “preemption”), i.e., that Saddam Hussein’s regime would, if not removed, acquire capabilities that it would direct against the United States.

2. It follows that one can rather straightforwardly argue for the Libyan intervention—on the grounds that it involves an imminent threat of mass violence triggering responsibility-to-protect obligations—and against the Iraq War—on the grounds that both no such basis existed and that the preventive-war criteria failed to withstand both normative and factual scrutiny. Indeed, the major humanitarian grounds for invading Iraq—which were not a central justification for the war, even if some have retconned them as such—rested on different moral claims than those at stake in Libya: namely, that military force (and military occupation) ought to be used to promote democratic regime change.

3. Thus, even if the Operation Odyssey Dawn results in Libya becoming more democratic, and even if we approve of this outcome, that does not make the strategic rationale for the Libyan intervention identical to that of the Iraq War.

4. The pragmatic considerations that I invoked in my post also provide a basis for distinguishing between Iraq and Libya. And here I refer not to the bullet points AL quotes—which I intended primarily to distinguish Libya from Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Syria—but to both explicit and implied arguments in the rest of the post, i.e., that the military risks posed by the intervention in Libya are orders of magnitude lower than those posed by Iraq. For example:

  • The US is not contemplating the occupation of Libya;
  • A power vacuum in Libya does not advantage a regional rival of the United States;
  • There are existing rebel forces on the ground that seek a unified post-Gaddafi Libya; and
  • The intervention, at least so far, smacks more of assisting ordinary Arabs then of imperial occupation.

Some of these differences may disappear in days or weeks, and others may not seem persuasive, but I’m fairly confident that the first two provide a significant basis for distinguishing Libya from Iraq on criteria of US national interests.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.