Why I Do Not Support President Obama's Decision on Libya

By Duane Shank 3-29-2011

Last evening, President Obama forcefully defended his decision to launch airstrikes against Libya in order to avert "a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world." Writing here on God's Politics this morning, our friend Wes Granberg-Michaelson concludes that "in this case, when the choices available do seem restricted to watching certain human slaughter or restraining evil intentions using internationally supported military power, I can understand and support the choice which President Obama has made."

The case can be made that the initial strikes may have prevented a possible massacre in Benghazi. At this point, we'll never really know. But having accomplished that, further military action should cease. The threat of a massacre has been ended, President Obama, Secretary of Defense Gates, and Secretary of State Clinton say that the no-fly zone has accomplished its purpose.

The president said that "NATO has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and No Fly Zone" and that "the United States will play a supporting role." This morning, we're seeing what that role involves. The news is that the "U.S. military dramatically stepped up its assault on Libyan government forces over the weekend, launching its first missions with AC-130 flying gunships and A-10 attack aircraft designed to strike enemy ground troops and supply convoys." In other words, "The airstrikes now are clearly enabling rebels bent on overthrowing Khadafy to push toward the final line of defense on the road to the capital." It is no longer a no-fly zone, but the de facto air force for armed rebel troops on the ground, clearing the way ahead of them for attacks on Libyan forces still loyal to Gadhafi.

A British professor of international law, former high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, said the coalition forces led by Britain, France, and the U.S. were facing "a moment of danger" over the legality of their actions. He said "continued support for this looks as though it is leading to support for regime change, which legally is beyond the security council resolution."

Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar that leaders "cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war." But having done that, how are they retrieved? Or, as Jim Wallis wrote, "The U.S. just started another war. We're good at starting wars. We're not good at ending them, but we start them really well." The president pointedly did not lay out an exit strategy last evening. What happens when Gadhafi and his loyalists hole up in Tripoli? Does that mean air strikes in Tripoli? And, if not, what is the strategy if Gadhafi remains in Tripoli while rebels control the rest of the country? A divided country? What does that do for the stability of the region? At this point in the military intervention against Libya, there are more questions than answers.

And why Libya and not Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and other countries where repressive governments are shooting down nonviolent demonstrators, places where as the president put it, "a new generation is refusing to be denied their rights and opportunities any longer?" His only answer was that "America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs." Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough explained, "We don't get very hung up on this question of precedent. Libya was unique. And insofar as we believe it's unique, we believe it doesn't set a precedent that should create any expectations in that regard." So, if you are in a country that is a long-standing ally of the U.S. with U.S. military bases, don't have any expectations. Or, if you're in an African country such as Darfur, Zimbabwe, the Congo, or Ivory Coast where there are ongoing massacres of civilians, don't have any expectations.

I have opposed this military action, and will continue to oppose it. The history of what begin as limited military interventions should teach us that entering into something without a clear strategy for ending it is full of danger. Momentum and the law of unintended consequences almost inevitably come into play, when having started something it is not clear how it will end. That is the situation the U.S. is now in. I'll go with Pope Benedict XVI, who said, "My fear for the safety and well-being of the civilian population is growing, as is my apprehension over how the situation is developing with the use of arms. To international agencies and to those with political and military responsibility, I make a heartfelt appeal for the immediate start of a dialogue that will suspend the use of arms."

Duane Shank is senior policy advisor at Sojourners.

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