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On Obama’s Libya speech: moral blackmail doesn’t trump politics

President Obama’s address to the nation on Libya last night was lengthy, but it did not really put to rest the many questions that have been raised about the military intervention in that country. We are still not clear about the mission and the endgame, why Congress was not allowed to vote on it, and so on.

But if you strip away the doubts and questions that linger over the bombing campaign in Libya, there is a core issue that Obama sought to close the deal on last night: the humanitarian need to stop a slaughter. The crux of his argument was contained in this passage:

We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen.

This is a moral argument, not a political argument, for intervention. Moral arguments such as these are really aimed at shutting down debate: asserting a moral imperative means you are telling opponents that they cannot bring political realities to the table. We are purely focused on saving lives; you are cold-hearted to even mention political ramifications, and are just using them as an excuse for your moral cowardice.

Confronted with this moral blackmail, critics of the Libya intervention have rightly pointed out the selective nature of this supposedly universal principle. What about Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe or, in the Middle East itself, Bahrain? As someone opposed to Western intervention, I think we do need to be careful in how this line of argument is deployed: it should not be used as a call for the US and the West to send the military into those countries as well. To my ears, “where is the no-fly zone in Gaza?” seems too much like an invitation than a criticism. But the counter about Ivory Coast and other countries is valid and reasonable insofar as it highlights that the humanitarian interventionists in the White House are not principled and consistent: they themselves will "stand idly by" in many other situations.

While putting the moral/humanitarian argument at the center of his speech last night, Obama himself made plain that the decision to intervene in Libya involved political calculations as well.

Obama noted that critics “argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world.” To that, Obama responded: “It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.” He recognized political factors – limits on the military and American “interests” – only to state that the moral issue (“what’s right”) must trump politics in the case of Libya.

Obama continued to toggle between politics and morals. He said “America has an important strategic interest in preventing Gaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him,” emphasizing the political considerations. But, again, he hoped his killer app would be a moralism devoid of politics: “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of the slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

Obama and his supporters can’t simply tell us to switch off our political brains and just think of the moral imperative to intervene – especially when the President himself admitted time and again that political factors were essential criteria in deciding whether or not to intervene militarily.

The problem with the moral approach is that when you boil an issue like Libya down to a moral choice, it becomes myopic. Obama phrases his argument in a way that is analogous to the decision to give money to a beggar. Obama is effectively saying, just because I can’t give to all beggars (all countries with humanitarian crises), that does not mean I should not give to a particular beggar that I pass on the street (Libya). But that framing reduces a broader social issue, such as the cause of poverty, to a personal decision, such as whether to donate to a beggar. 

Likewise, in the Libya debate, the moralists' call to “stop the slaughter” limits our perspective. This outlook has no room for democratic principles like self-determination and national sovereignty. This is not the time to indulge in abstract political ideas like these, say the moralists; suspend those thoughts and get behind the war effort to save lives.

A major political reality that gets overlooked in the rush to “stop the slaughter” is a recognition of who exactly is doing the supposed work of saving lives, and how. Sending in the US military is not like an individual lending their support: it is inviting the country with the world’s largest economy, the world’s most political clout and the world's biggest armed force to sort out another country's affairs. When the US intervenes, it is so large that it becomes the most determining force, and no longer do the local people call the shots. Groups that were once vying for the hearts and minds of the people now become the supplicants for US favors. The emerging democratic process is aborted, and the groups with best connections to the US are effectively crowned the rulers. The US still claims that it will let the Libyan people decide their future - some day, only when the US decides the time is right. The Libyans don't have a say over that.

Calling on the US and the West to intervene, for humanitarian reasons or any others, is an imperial assumption that many people in the West mindlessly make. Just turn the tables. What if Libya said it was going to intervene to stop the violence on America’s inner-city streets? Or, look at the politicians taking away labor rights in Wisconsin: that sounds like a case for the international community, maybe with Cuba and Burkina Faso taking the lead.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the humanitarian warriors of the West do not really have the interests of the people in Libya at heart, whatever their subjective intentions. US military action is, by definition, deadly. While touting that some in Libya have been spared from the ruthless dictator Gaddafi, the war's proponents downplay how other Libyans are now being killed by the US/Western forces and the rebels. Economic backwardness, social division and violence is a horrible reality in Libya and other parts of the developing world. Yes, without Western interference in countries like Libya, there will be bloodshed - but also the hope that a democratic process will emerge through people struggling to take control of their own affairs. With Western interference, however, there will just be blood.

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