It’s ok to feel conflicted over the Libyan intervention. You’re not alone — and you have good reason. The U.S. response to the uprising against the Gaddafi regime raises a welter of issues. Is oil driving decisions? Why the inconsistency if not hypocrisy of acting in Libya but not Gaza? Is Libya just another case of U.S. muscle flexing or quagmire making? All these are reasonable concerns, but I’ve begun wondering if deeper issues don’t lurk beneath the Libya confusion.
First, the old problem of how serious is the U.S. commitment to democracy. Alongside pro-democracy rhetoric spanning decades is an equally long record of policymakers acting on doubts that most people around the world have the political maturity to manage freedom responsibly. As I’ve noted in previous posts, what we have given in principle we have frequently taken back in practice. Broad claims to support democracy in U.S. policy toward Latin America, East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East have turned into backing for strongman regimes.
Libya, like other countries swept along by the Arab Spring, has prompted justified worries about expanded influence or at least political openings for “radical Islam.” Uprisings may indeed yield regimes so internally divided or decentralized that they create space for anti-American movements and ideologies to operate freely, or those regimes may be broadly popular but not give adequate support to the U.S. war on terrorism. So what is our bottom line? If our major concern is not with democracy but with strong, compliant regimes, then we should be clear in our own minds and in our message to others that our backing for the democratic process is highly qualified.
Second, there is the relatively new problem raised by those inside the Obama administration championing the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. That doctrine takes a large, troubling step beyond the regime of international norms and laws developed after World War II that significantly qualified sovereignty. Leaders who committed particular kinds of atrocities such as genocide or crimes against humanity became subject to international justice. The postwar agreements focused on what leaders had done and proceeded to judge them on the basis of clearly articulated, internationally accepted standards in formal trials. The responsibility to protect operates in a distinctly ad hoc fashion. It has no clearly articulated standards; it is based instead on anticipated outcomes. Preempting atrocities turns out to be a very different matter from judging perpetrators.
The problem with the intervention in Libya is not that it lacks broad international backing. To the contrary, the uprising has created a broad consensus for action within the UN, within the Arab League, and amongst most major powers. But this broad international consensus should not be confused with backing for a sweeping new rule demanding automatic application whatever the situation. For that to happen, the proponents of responsibility to protect need to subject their ideas to the same process of international debate, treaty drafting, and ratification that laws on genocide and other issues have gone through. Such a process is likely to expose its flaws and its limited international acceptance.
Third, behind the responsibility to protect is a still unresolved deep tension over the U.S. role as a member of the international community. The Obama administration seems to take for granted that global leadership and global citizenship are compatible. This assumption seems safe in the Libya case where consensus building has worked and produced an outcome acceptable to the United States. But acting as a genuine member of the international community can seriously constrain American leadership. As a world citizen, the United States does not get a rubber stamp; at best it can try to sway the debate and apply its resources to winning supporters on whatever issue Washington feels strongly about. Global citizenship thus rests on an informal political compact in which community action depends on the approval of both major powers and leading countries within the region where action is envisioned. Citizens cannot opt out if they do not get their way.
Respecting the limits imposed by other countries as stakeholders in the state of the world makes for messy U.S. policy. As the critics have been pointing out since the 1970s, a policy of greater, sustained international citizenship bears especially heavily on the exercise of U.S. military might. They regard go-it-alone as perfectly fine and often the preferable course. Unparalleled U.S. military might should not be constrained, so they contend, by international organization, by the other permanent members of the UN security council, or by the vagaries of international politics and public opinion in other countries.
The Libya crisis seems in these three ways to beg the question of the U.S. role in the world: how serious a democratic champion, how open-ended a commitment to humanitarian action, and how much of an international team player? The Obama administration appears to want to leave this set of worms safely in the can. The president’s address explaining after-the-fact U.S. participation in the Libyan intervention buries the big questions raised here under a pile of bromides, clichés, and half truths. Perhaps that’s where they belong, touching so closely as they do on sensitive issues of national identity and purpose.
But in the end clarity does matter. Decision makers acting under pressure and trying to find their way through a complex set of international commitments and concerns need a compass. They should have a philosophy of how the United States relates to the world if they are to chart a consistent course rather than have the shifting currents of international and domestic politics push them hither and thither. The conflict in our heads precipitated by Libya is now also waging in theirs. Better that we all had some sharper, considered notion of what we are about.
Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.