By **Jake Whitney**
On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said something remarkable: Libya is not a vital American interest. Some Conservatives, most notably Ross Douthat in today’s New York Times, jumped on Gates’s words as a slip that indicted the Obama Administration for embarking upon a misguided military intervention. Why should America intervene if we have no vital interest there? What Douthat and other critics are missing is that our lack of a vital interest is an important reason why our involvement should be supported.
America has fought very few wars for others. Oh, we’ve launched many—the vast majority, in fact—in the name of others, but this declaration was almost universally a cover for the true reasons, which were our direct economic and strategic interests. So how many have we really fought for others? Bosnia. Somalia, too, though it was admittedly a poorly planned mission that resulted in disaster. Those are all I can think of. The Second World War was a necessary one to fight, but we did so for our own interests as much as anyone else’s.
No, the American way of war (to borrow a term from Tom Engelhardt) has typically been to support anyone, even murderous tyrants, as long as they protected American interests; and to over-hype threats to justify the existence of our military-industrial complex. We’ve conspired to assassinate heads of state who were supported by their own people but were not friendly to us. We’ve committed countless atrocities because our vital interests were threatened. None of this is the case in Libya.
Douthat compares Libya to Iraq and Afghanistan. Admittedly, it’s crucial to heed the lessons of history, and it’s important to learn from our mistakes in those wars. However, when it comes to the reasons for our military involvement here, Libya is nothing like Iraq or Afghanistan. Douthat cites open questions, questions that should have been asked much more frequently before our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan: What is our exit plan? Why are we not intervening elsewhere? Can we really hand the mission off?
While it is nearly impossible to justify killing, all evidence suggests that more people will die if the United States doesn’t intervene. So as long as this campaign—this war—is fought to help the Libyan people, and not to advance U.S. interests, it is a just one.
These are valid points, but they are mainly questions of logistics. Douthat is missing the key point: our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were based entirely upon American interests. Iraq was fought for oil and corporate interests, planned and advocated even before 9/11; it was not fought for Iraqis. Afghanistan was fought to prevent another 9/11 (probably necessarily, to be sure, but the time has certainly come to leave), not for Afghanis.
In Libya, on the other hand, we are fighting for Libyans. And the mission has global support. The Arab League has pleaded with us to help end the slaughter. The U.N. supports our involvement and is ostensibly even leading the military campaign. The American way of war, as is usually rendered, would have us ignore these pleas for help and instead support Qaddafi, as he has recently been our friend. Obama did not. Instead, he sided with the Libyan people—people who are fighting and dying to end the corruption and incompetence of the Qaddafi regime, a cause Americans as much as any people should support.
Tonight Obama will say all of these things. He will also, as Douthat legitimately pointed out, wield euphemism after euphemism to downplay the killing that will result from our involvement. While it is nearly impossible to justify killing, all evidence suggests that more people will die if the United States doesn’t intervene. So as long as this campaign—this war—is fought to help the Libyan people, and not to advance U.S. interests, it is a just one.
Finally, there are other considerations here besides moral ones; indirect benefits to the United States may indeed result from our military involvement in Libya. Arabs, some of whom continue to hate us, may see our intervention for what it is—benevolent. If that happens, the most radical of them may stop trying to kill us. And then, hopefully, we will stop slaughtering them.
Copyright 2011 Jake Whitney
Jake is a writer originally from the Bay Area who now lives in Westchester. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New Republic, The San Francisco Chronicle, Editor & Publisher, New York magazine, The Huffington Post, and many others. Jake holds a Master’s degree in journalism from Iona College. His most recent piece can be read here.