Ok, maybe that was a bit hasty. Let’s back up a bit.
When we ask this question, usually we have to examine the reasons behind it. What is the context in which we are seeking justification for what is always “a poor chisel to carve out tomorrow” (as MLK Jr. put it)? As Americans, we are always asking this question from a position of privilege and hegemony. We never ask this question from the perspective of an oppressed faction in some other state – when we pretend to, what we are actually doing is seeking justification for our own involvement in those affairs. We are replacing the context of our position and involvement with the cause of people who do not enjoy that same state of affairs.
What I mean to say is, when we’re talking about freedom fighters, honestly I believe we have no clue what we’re saying. Firstly, we cannot empathize with an oppressed minority, because a great deal of their situation is a result of US foreign policy in the region. Arab societies have increasingly insular and authoritarian structures as a reaction to what they perceive as a pervasive western influence which undermines their sovereignty. Let’s face it; America does the same. Islamaphobia is a cultural backlash to what people perceive as a threat to traditional social norms.
Second, the US establishment never involves itself without ulterior motives. More accurately, unless there is a substantial and legitimate interest, the United States is unlikely to invest the cost of intervention into a situation where there isn’t a meaningful incentive. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “why didn’t the US intervene in ___?” the most likely answer was that there was nothing to gain from it. Our misconception is that the government values human lives and their ideals in and of themselves – indeed, this is what President Obama alluded to last night when he said:
For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom. Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act. That is what happened in Libya over the course of these last six weeks.
In the same thought, Obama off-handedly justified the US’s exclusive role as “world police” (something he used to be careful to avoid) and referenced the “interests and values” of the US. Now, I did not believe the US would get involved in Libya: Qudaffi does not represent a direct threat to the US. has not been important in international politics for several decades now, and Libya only produces something like 5% of OPEC’s oil (and this disruption has already been compensated for). But there are other reasons that we’ll get to.
Third, freedom fighters in any country by definition are fighting for freedom against some oppressive local enemy or a local proxy representing some larger imperial force. They are not appealing some other imperial entity to fight for them, and they are not asking for that entity to instate itself once the conflict begins to resolve. We often make the mythological connection between foreign freedom fighters and the American founding fathers; although they did petition France to aid their cause, they never asked France to institute a new Estate in the Americas. Neither did France assert itself unilaterally onto the scene – the colonists had to plead their case to get them to become involved. And joint operations were typically subject to American goals (not subservient to the French). It’s dishonest for an interjecting force to assert itself as anything other than a third wheel if it is not totally cooperative and working in conjuncture with a native representative body. Very crudely put, this is not our fight, and Libyans have been telling us so from the beginning.
Now I’ve recently seen conservatives attacking liberals for supporting Obama during this latest operation while they criticized Bush on military action in the past. However, their error is a simple one which should be obvious from what I’ve already said – neither action is about saving lives. There are policy objectives which always take priority over the population. Like I wrote earlier, human lives are not valued by the government to the extent that we think they are. So that brings us to the question, what is the real agenda of the administration in Libya? (you won’t like the answer)
The establishment sees Libya as an intersection between the global attention drawn to Arab world’s political upheaval and the preexisting policy aims of “stabilization” in the region. Hosni Mubarak could not be ousted by western forces because not only would it have ended a 30 year relationship in a betrayal of confidences, but it would have undermined the cordial diplomatic relations with other Mideast dictators and authoritarians who the US continues to back. However, Muammar al-Qaddafi has always been a thorn in the backside of the west who dabbled with Soviets and stood next to more honest anti-capitalist agitators. By bombing Libya, the US aims to kill a few birds with one stone (or more accurately, some very expensive bombs) and place itself on the side of those social-media savvy dissidents in Arab countries who have woken up some Americans for a few minutes.
Now why should you be upset about this answer? There are several bitter truths to swallow. One, the cost. While the US is always bellyaching about a financial crisis, we were in the middle of a serious debate about labor rights, underpaid teachers and health care, among other things. Obama’s 2011 defense spending budget equalled somewhere near the sum of 700-800 billion USD. While some argue that Libya will merely be a drop in the bucket, this only serves to illustrate how casually we throw money at complex problems via traditional means (and keep the war machine turning, of course).
Second, the impact to human lives. Despite what you may believe, bombing is always indiscriminate. Given our track record in Iraq/Afghanistan, the Russians are already keen to tell us to watch it. I already told you, the administration doesn’t believe people’s lives matter as much as you think. This doesn’t mean we should start thinking the same way. These are living, breathing human beings after all. If you have a single compassionate bone in your body, it should trouble you when people are blown to bits.
Third, the implications. Interventionism is not out. This is merely another slick side-step to continue manipulating the geopolitical arena. Good PR for the US in the region gives the administration more political capital to leverage situations to their benefit. That’s the sum of the goals of any establishment; keeping people fighting amongst themselves to prevent genuine democracy or self-determination. I’m not saying we’re going to see another US occupation, but the situation in Libya seems all too familiar and reminiscent of US involvement in the Kosovo War a few years back. We are simply going back from the pretense of GWOT to pretending we have the unipolar international relations of the 90’s.
Oh, what was that question again? Let’s rephrase it now. When is it ok for the leaders of the United States (the most powerful, richest, dominating, hegemonic, influential, assertive, advanced nation in the world) to decide to use their position in the establishment to send the country (in financial and moral chaos, fractured and beaten down, under the spell of hypnotic propaganda blaring from the framing of the news networks)… to war?