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Protecting Libyan Civilians, Not Others

Even if you think that the incipient Libyan civil war was an unfolding humanitarian tragedy that justified some international intervention, it is hard not to take note of the endless double standards and selective outrage that pervade U.S. foreign policy.

For instance, there’s the parallel hypocrisy in Washington’s tepid reaction to the invasion of Bahrain by military forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, supporting a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators by Bahrain’s king. Where are the warnings of a muscular Western response in the home port of the U.S. Fifth Fleet?

Indeed, many Washington policymakers and pundits quietly justify the Saudi/UAE military action by noting that the protesters are part of Bahrain’s Shiite majority who might favor closer ties to Shiite-ruled Iran if some form of democracy came to the island kingdom.

Since Iran is considered a U.S. adversary – and because the Sunni-run Persian Gulf sheikdoms provide lots of oil to the West – Realpolitik suddenly takes over. The principles of majority rule and human rights are shoved into the back seat.

Similarly, when Yemen, a key U.S. ally in the “war on terror,” opens fire on pro-democracy protesters, there’s only a little finger-waving, no international clamor for a military intervention.

Of course, this double standard is even more striking when it is Israel killing civilians – such as when it escalated minor border clashes into full-scale assaults against nearby enemies, inflicting heavy civilian losses in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008-09, not to mention Israel’s repeated assaults on Palestinians in the West Bank.

In such cases, U.S. politicians, including then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, endorsed Israel’s acts of “self-defense.” Prominent columnists like the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer cheered on the mayhem against the Lebanese and the Palestinians as a justifiable collective punishment for them tolerating Hezbollah and Hamas.

During the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in 2006, Sen. Clinton happily shared the stage of a pro-Israel rally with Israeli United Nations Ambassador Dan Gillerman, a notorious anti-Muslim bigot. He responded to complaints that Israel was using “disproportionate” violence against targets in Lebanon by declaring: “You’re damn right we are.” [NYT, July 18, 2006]

After the slaughter in Gaza in 2008-09, the biggest villain to emerge was South African jurist Richard Goldstone for writing a report that cited war crimes by both Israel and Hamas. Goldstone placed the heavier blame on Israel in the killing of some 1,400 Palestinians. (Thirteen Israelis also died.)

Instead of showing sympathy for the dead Palestinian civilians, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 344-36 to condemn Goldstone’s report as “irredeemably biased” for its criticism of Israel. That overwhelming consensus was reflected across the U.S. political/media landscape.

And, there are the direct U.S. invasions of other countries – whether the ongoing ones in Afghanistan and Iraq or prior ones such as Vietnam in the 1960s, Panama in 1989 and Iraq in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. All have been accompanied by massive loss of civilian life.

In the case of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush initiated a war of aggression against a country that was then at peace. With very few exceptions, the U.S. political/media Establishment rallied behind Bush’s invasion, which has since led to the deaths and maiming of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including large numbers of civilians.

Though Bush launched the Iraq invasion without U.N. sanction – and his actions were criticized by some world leaders – not a single country took any direct action to interfere with the U.S. assault or to protect Iraqi civilians from Bush’s “shock and awe” campaign of overwhelming violence. As the war wore on, cities like Fallujah were flattened by U.S. firepower.

Fighting Al-Qaeda

To this day, U.S. drones and other air assets routinely kill civilians while hunting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan. The American justification is that the Taliban has taken up arms against the U.S.-installed government in Kabul and that the Taliban is believed to be harboring elements of al-Qaeda.

That rationale mirrors what Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi says he is doing in his country, fighting back against armed militants who, he claims, have connections to an al-Qaeda affiliate.

In a personal letter to President Barack Obama on Saturday, Gaddafi wrote that “we are confronting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, nothing more. What would you do if you found them controlling American cities with the power of weapons? Tell me how would you behave so that I could follow your example?”

Though Gaddafi’s claim that his Libyan opponents include al-Qaeda terrorists is surely self-serving, it could not be any more self-serving – or false – than President Bush’s assertions tying Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda, a primary justification for invading Iraq in 2003.

It’s also a fact that American political/media insiders often mock claims by U.S.-designated enemies during the early propaganda phases of a conflict but then later, grudgingly, acknowledged that there was some truth to those assertions after all.

For instance, when Iraq turned over 12,000 pages of documents to the U.N. in fall 2002 explaining how the country had destroyed its old WMD stockpiles, the submission was pooh-poohed by U.S. officials and leading American media commentators, but it later turned out to be true.

Today’s Libyan conflict has been generally viewed as an incipient civil war pitting anti-Gaddafi tribes from the east against pro-Gaddafi tribes in the west, but it is certainly possible that al-Qaeda operatives will take advantage of the disorder, much as they did in moving into post-invasion Iraq.

That point was acknowledged by the New York Times on Sunday in reporting that “one widely held concern is the possibility of a divided Libya with no clear authority, opening the door for Islamic extremists to begin operating in a country that had formerly been closed to them.”

Despite similarities between past conflicts and the new one, there has been one notable difference separating Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq from Obama’s support for the intervention in Libya: the rhetoric.

While Bush oversaw vibrant pro-war propaganda campaigns topped off by his grim-faced speeches from the Oval Office, Obama has behaved as the reluctant warrior he claims to be.

Obama insisted that no U.S. ground troops be sent to Libya, that the United Nations Security Council sanction the intervention and that U.S. involvement last only days, not be open-ended. He didn’t even disrupt a previously arranged visit to South America.

At a Saturday press briefing, standing next to Brazil's president, Obama only briefly mentioned the start of the conflict. In marked contrast to Bush’s bluster about a “crusade” to eliminate “evil” in the world, Obama struck a nuanced note of regret.

“I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice,” he said. “But we can’t stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy.”

Obama also skipped the emergency summit in Paris called by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Obama dispatched Secretary of State Clinton instead. She, too, expressed uncharacteristic American humility and ambivalence regarding the war.

“We did not lead this,” Clinton said, as she pointedly repudiated “unilateral” action, a slap at Bush’s macho go-it-alone approach to war.

Absent the enforced jingoism that usually accompanies a U.S. war buildup, the American press corps also seemed a bit less gung-ho, even daring to take note of the inconsistency of Saudi Arabia and the UAE backing an intervention to protect Libyan civilians while joining in the violent suppression of Bahrain’s Shiite majority.

So, perhaps one should offer thanks for small favors. At least in this third ongoing U.S. war in the Muslim world, there hasn’t been quite the propaganda bullying that surrounded the other two.

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