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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Self Shelf: An American obligation to democracy

Published: April 1, 2011
Section: Opinions

As Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s forces renew the offensive against the rebels, President Obama and the defense department are determined to keep the war from spinning out of control. The absolute worst case scenario seems to be the idea of troops on the ground although others claim that continued U.S. presence in the region increases America’s commitment to the region by the day. Yet the question of America’s commitment to this cause is not my topic. What I wish to explore is the question of America’s obligation to promote its values. The events of the past few weeks and indeed the past few decades seem to beg the question of what role America ought play in the world. I will try to answer this question by focusing on whether America was justified, at the outset, in intervening in Libya.

The first area to explore is whether there is a constitutional obligation of any sort to provide humanitarian support for the rest of the world. Obviously, there is not. This is why the isolationists claim that the United States has no obligation to the rest of the world whatsoever and should draw down its military in order to focus on domestic policy. Yet military power is almost a prerequisite facet of any powerful state in the modern age. Military muscle helps protect American interests across the globe and certainly lends the country more soft power to pursue economic and political interests. For example, it is the large size of the United States navy that allows it to protect American shipping from pirates off the coast of Somalia. We cannot, however, derive an obligation from American economic or political interests to justify intervening in Libya. Gadhafi, while an autocratic and brutal ruler, was also an American ally. Like the deposed Hosni Mubarak, he was a dictator but he was the United States’ dictator. I will deal with the inherent hypocrisy of that statement later in the article. Thus, there was no compelling interest pragmatically to intervene.

The second possible argument for an intervention might be that of international perception. Helping rebels fight a brutal dictator (which we had previously backed) might show the rest of the world that the United States actually believes in liberty and democracy in all cases rather than just when it’s convenient. Also, it might show the increasingly democratic Middle East that we are serious about liberty and aren’t merely seeking to dominate the region. By making sure we had the support of the Arab League before entering into the fray, I would argue we accomplished that objective. A rebuttal of this argument is fairly obvious. Many critics now claim that the United States has gotten involved in another Middle Eastern imbroglio wherein large amounts of resources, both military and fiscal, will have to go to Libya to support the rebels and the new regime. This, they argue, will lead to a perception of the United States as a military overlord in the area once more. It is not clear at this point what will happen in the Libyan conflict, so I cannot speak as to the validity of these claims. At best, therefore, the argument of perceptional benefits is a neutral battleground.

The third claim, and the one I believe clears this issue up the most, is the argument of keeping in line with American ideals. There is a benefit, I would argue, to standing up actively for commonly acknowledged national and global ideals. The defense of human life against a brutal tyrant is one of them. Of course, Libya is not as cut and dry as all that. The question of whether the rebels will commit atrocities and what to do if that happens is going to be increasingly important as the situation develops. Yet at the outset, there was a situation in which a government army was about to massacre its own people without mercy. There was no compromise—no deal offered to the rebels. Gadhafi did not even make the pretense of pretending that he cared about the people—it was simply a matter of brutally suppressing them. At that juncture, for America to stand by and watch as thousands of rebels and civilian bystanders were massacred by a tyrant would be to swallow its ideals. For it is not as if the United States did not have the power to prevent this. The navy was in position to help the rebels, who openly called for aid from the rest of the world, at relatively little cost. From this position, I would argue America had an obligation to defend the rebels against the impending massacre. The situation is akin to a lifeguard passing someone drowning in a pond. If that lifeguard simply walked by that person, there are few people who wouldn’t find him somewhat morally culpable for the tragic consequences. America therefore had an obligation to help prevent Benghazi from becoming the new Srebrenica. America had an obligation to prevent people crying out for liberty from being extinguished by a tyrant.

That is the argument that tips the balance in favor of intervention. For, if America turned a blind eye to atrocities committed against a rebel movement by a tyrant when it had the power to prevent them, it would be no better than a doctor who ignores a dying man. At some point, the moral line has to be drawn. We had the power to intervene and I believe we made the right decision to do so. It may have no direct pragmatic benefit nor be obligated by law but it shores up American ideals and helps spread them to those in need. If the entire situation unravels, I will still believe that the intervention was justified. For a relatively small cost, we saved what could be a fledgling democratic movement.

Regardless of what happens afterward, for at least one shining moment, the United States scored a victory for democracy.