The U.S. Congress, like the mainstream media, has been frequently accused of having a terrible problem with memory. In either case the talking heads, whether on Fox and Friends or in a committee hearing, have often displayed an unfortunate tendency to propound political analyses and policy prescriptions that betray little insight into even the most recent history.
But perhaps attempting to buck this trend, members of Congress have imbued their calls for a no-fly zone over Libya — read air strikes — with a colorful palette of sordid historical moments.
Here’s the New York Times recounting Senator John Kerry’s (D–MA) remarks at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee:
“You want to be prepared if he is bombing people, and killing his own people,” he said, referring to Colonel Qaddafi. The Libyan people, he said, would “look defenseless and we would look feckless — you have to be ready.”
He added: “What haunts me is the specter of Iraq 1991,” when former President George Bush “urged the Shia to rise up, and they did rise up, and tanks and planes were coming at them — and we were nowhere to be seen.”
“Tens of thousands were slaughtered,” Mr. Kerry said.
President Bill Clinton, he said, “missed the chance in Rwanda, and said later it was the greatest regret of his presidency, and then was too slow in Bosnia,” where the United States ended up using air power, also in the defense of a Muslim population.
This call has been echoed by other prominent senators as well, notably Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT).
But how curious is this newfound power of recollection! In order to bring up an Iraq of 1991, one must first bypass the Iraq of anytime from 2003 to the present. And absent from even this discussion of the 1991 tragedy is the understanding that the Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish uprisings were expressly encouraged by the first Bush administration before it decided to hedge its mission in the country. The 1991 debacle was thus part and parcel of a prior U.S. intervention. Of course, it should go without saying that the subsequent U.S. intervention permitted an even deadlier tragedy to unfold.
Nor should guilt about the failure of the international community to stem the flow of blood in Rwanda or (to a somewhat lesser extent) the former Yugoslavia supplant our memories about the perils of intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan. Guilt must not supersede reason.
And the reasons are manifold. Phyllis Bennis and Adil E. Shamoo have already laid out the case against a U.S.-led no-fly zone or intervention in Libya. Citing not least that a no-fly zone would be of limited utility in stopping the largely ground-based attacks on Libyan rebels and civilians, they also note that the U.S. must not deprive the revolution of its wholly Libyan character, which would play directly into Gaddafi’s hands. And if such an assault would be of little assistance to Libyans, one can only imagine what yet another American incursion into an oil-rich Middle Eastern country would mean for the United States.
But the Libya hawks press on. Members of the resistance have requested such assistance, they insist. True — a few of them have. But spokesmen for the would-be interim government have also urged the West to stay out of it. Meanwhile the calls of pro–democracy protesters in Bahrain for even rhetorical support from the U.S. have fallen largely on deaf ears. One wonders what could explain the discrepancy.
For all their curiously selective appeals to history, Libya hawks in Congress seem blithely unaware of the gravity of taking military action — or even what counts as military action. Setting up a no-fly zone, as Adm. Gary Roughead explained to Sen. Roger Wicker (R–MI), would mean “entering into combat operations.” “Air combat operations,” interjected Wicker, as though an attack from above were somehow less an act of war than one from below. Do American-made bombs somehow implicate the United States less than American-made tanks? Would they play into Gaddafi’s narrative any less, or make the United States less any less responsible for the outcome?
But rest assured that the media and the Congress are once more on a similar page. In its dutiful quest for balance, the New York Times notes that “some would indeed regard [missilestrikesonLibya] as an act of war.” But what else could it be?
Perhaps our Libya hawks are only now coming to terms with the indigenous character of the revolutions sweeping the region. Tired of playing a purely reactive role, liberals and conservatives alike are now champing at the bit to put an American stamp on what has thus far been an Arab-led phenomenon. But whether in Iraq, the Gulf states, or Libya’s neighbors in Egypt and Tunisia, surely the region has seen enough of these already.
One needn’t look to Rwanda or Bosnia for instructive examples about how the U.S. should proceed in Libya. The entire Middle East is already stained with the ink of old stamps that read “Made in the USA.”
Peter Certo is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus as well as the Institute of Policy Studies Balkans Project and the Global Day of Action on Military Spending.