james debate
james debate

Tuesday 22 March 2011

It was a weekend of sensationalist headlines and propaganda as operation Odyssey Dawn got underway in Libya. The push for a no-fly zone had been spearheaded by Great Britain and France for weeks, but it was only once a successful UN vote eased the United States off the fence that the idea finally found some traction. No doubt over the coming days and weeks a common theme will be the question of whether this conflict is the new Iraq war, and particularly the ramifications that concept may hold for the Nobel Peace prize winning President Obama. But just how apt is this comparison?

libya operation odyssey dawn

First the similarities that early adopters have already begun to trumpet; both Iraq and Libya are run by cruel and brutal dictators and are in possession of great quantities of oil, both are muslim countries. However this is pretty much as far as it goes, and as you can see, so far so superficial.

The obvious concern is that the coalition of Western powers may be walking into yet another quagmire, one that will create massive deficits, cost lives, and further strain relations between them and the Muslim world. This is particularly an issue of concern for Obama who has made reaching out to these formally unfavourable nations a cornerstone of his foreign policy with marked success, one might worry that this single act will jeopardise all that progress.

But these comparisons are, as I said, superficial at best, and the worries are premature. There is a great deal of difference between this conflict and the Iraq war that plunged a decade of American foreign policy into ruin.

First and foremost there is the fact that technically speaking this is not even a war yet. There are no ground troops committed, and no offensive action permitted against Gaddafi. Right now the only aims of the operation are to defend the Libyan civilians by disabling Gaddafi's attack forces. Far from Iraq's full scale invasion, this operation merely oversees aerial support. In this regard the conflict has a good deal more in common with Bill Clinton's cautious brand of foreign policy from the 1990s, which saw him launch similar bombardments on Iraq, Yugoslavia, Sudan and others, while remaining hesitant to commit America to long term conflicts. Few people would compare those events with what we saw under the Bush administration, as they seem so quick to do with this most recent conflict.

Further more, the situation in the region could not be more different than that which was seen in Iraq eight years ago. Libya right now is in a state of open civil war, with thousands dead, and conflict raging. The situation has become so dire that the Libyan people have actually requested intervention from the west. As Gaddafi continues to move into Benghazi and beyond, there is the very real risk that thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Libyan civilians could be killed. This threat, simply put, did not exist with Iraq. That nation was relatively stable, and there was no clear reason to go to war, as evidenced by the Bush administration's constant jumping jacks between different excuses (WMDs? Terrorists? Humanitarian crisis? Oil? Pick your flavour of the week).

Perhaps most important is the difference in implementation between conflicts. The proper channels have been pursued in approving this operation cleanly and legally through the United Nations, something which was deemed to be an unnecessary waste of time for the Iraq War. As a result, the conflict is progressing multilaterally with the support of the UN, the international community, and most crucially the Arab nations in the region. Contrast this with Bush's illegally waged, unilateral war where he struggled to scrounge together any form of coalition to support him and went into Iraq against the will of the muslim world. From day one it was a catastrophe and one which destabilised international relations, particularly western/Arab relations, for a decade. Indeed, this time the United States even seems to be marginalising its role in the conflict, allowing Great Britain and France to take charge.

This radically different approach makes all the difference. The support of muslim nations will make it harder for Gaddafi's propaganda machine to demonise the Western interlopers, and the multinational support will bear the brunt and culpability of the conflict together, rather than making this "America's war" as was the case with Iraq. Add to this the lack of committed ground forces, and it is clear that this is a very different kind of conflict to Iraq, and one which carries far less risk.

The perception of the Iraq war was that the Bush administration fully and unilaterally invaded the muslim world, with scant multinational support, no legal justification, and a shaky moral standing. By contrast operation Odyssey Dawn is legal, backed by the international community, and only features aerial support missions. The former set international relations back several decades, the latter seems to be appropriately working within them. I suspect that it has been so long since we've seen a US President pursuing rational foreign policy that the gut reaction may be to compare this conflict to Bush's wars, but in reality the operation has far more in common with Clintonian foreign policy. We would all do well to maintain some perspective.

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