(First published Strategic Culture Foundation)
When President Bush decided to attack Iraq in 2003 there were enormous protests in the United States and around the world. Not, of course, that they stopped the attack or even slowed it, but people did protest in large numbers. When Obama – “leading from behind” – and some NATO members decided to attack Libya in 2011 there were, as far as I know, no protests anywhere. Nor were there protests as wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and a secret war in Syria dragged on for nearly his whole eight years.
The surface explanation is that Obama, as a Democrat, the First Black President, an “intellectual” and a Nobel Prize winner, got the free pass that Bush as a Republican and an “incurious idiot” did not get. But there was another factor at work, I believe.
In the Obama years the marriage of the neocons and the humanitarian interventionists was effected. The neocons, with their doctrine of American Exceptionalism are always ready for an intervention and their justification is always the same: “American moral leadership”:
So there was never any difficulty getting neocons and their ilk to support another bombing campaign to do a bit of “morally exceptional police work”. The Obama change is that liberals, whose historic tendency is to oppose another war, are now in the War Party. And so there was hardly anyone was left to go out on protest.
Their first date, as it were, was NATO’s intervention in Kosovo/Serbia in 1999. That experiment proved that liberals would happily agree to go to war if the intervention could be coloured as morally acceptable: “genocide” and “rape” being especially powerful words. And, on command, it happened. “Serbs ‘enslaved Muslim women at rape camps‘”. Hundreds of thousands missing, feared murdered. 10,000 in mass graves. But the ur-source was the official NATO spokesman, Jamie Shea. (The following quotations are from NATO press briefings I collected at the time. I do not know whether they are still available on the NATO website, although, like the first one, many are still visible.) In March he told us that “we are on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster in Kosovo the likes of which have not been seen in Europe since the closing stages of World War II.” The NATO operation was conducted to “stop human suffering” (15 April). On 20 April he gave us a catalogue of Serb horrors: hundreds of Kosovar boys possibly preserved as living “blood banks for Serb casualties”; Kosovar human shields tied to Serb tanks; “chain gangs of Kosovars” digging mass graves; “systematic destruction of civilian homes”; rape camps. On 4 May “at least 100,000 men of military age are missing”. And so on: how could you not support the “alliance of civilised nations” (his description) intervening to stop these horrors? And CNN was there every step of the way; later we learned that US military psyops personnel had “helped in the production of some news stories“. Other media outlets were equally quick on board, again with occasional “help” from US intelligence:
In the case of Yugoslavia, the gullibility quotient has been breathtakingly high: Only material that conformed to the reigning victim-demon dichotomy would be hunted down with tenacity and reported; material that contradicted it, or that served to weaken and disconfirm it, would be ignored, discounted, excluded, even attacked.
Entirely one-sided with the media (predominantly liberal in sympathy) following the choir leader.
Later, too late in fact, we learned that it wasn’t so simple. A UN court ruled that it wasn’t “genocide” after all. Milosevic, dead in prison, was exonerated. Not so many mass graves after all. And, after all those deaths, whom did NATO put in power and give a whole country to? Organ harvesters and arms smugglers. And yes, the CIA was in there from the get go. A completely manipulated discussion. And the Serbs have been driven out of Kosovo right under NATO’s nose. Too late indeed.
In his essay, “Hidden in Plain View in Belgrade“, Vladimir Goldstein discovers, under the heading “What For?”, a memorial to the people killed in the attack on the TV centre. His conclusion, with which I agree, is:
Thus was R2P implemented—with no protection for Yugoslav Serbs. They had to die in the experiment to explore the limits of U.S. power and the limits of its resistance.
The experiment worked: it showed that an aggressive war could be packaged so that liberals signed on: all you had to do was push the war crimes/humanitarian/genocide button. And, as a bonus, it was discovered that when the truth finally came out, no one remembered and you could sell the same shabby story again; and so, Serb-run “rape camps” became Qaddafi’s men with Viagra.
It was around this time and these circumstances that the responsibility to protect (“R2P”) idea began to gain traction. Finally formalised at the UN in 2005, the essence was that governments are obliged to protect their populations from atrocities and that the “international community, through the United Nations” may intervene. That was the magic potion: if the war party could make a case for R2P (and, as Kosovo showed, the case didn’t have to last any longer than the war did) liberals would cheerfully sign on.
Obama celebrated the liberal-interventionist/neocon marriage at West Point in 2014. Starting with the neocon foundation on which all their wars are erected, that America will and must lead, comes the liberal deal-clincher: “not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe.” And that leading involves a “backbone”, not of example or persuasion, but of bombs: “The military that you have joined is and always will be the backbone of that leadership”. When should the USA use “that awesome power”? Certainly when “core interests” demand it but also when “crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction”.
Which brings me to the fourth and final element of American leadership: Our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity.
And, he assured us, it all works out for the best in the end:
remember that because of America’s efforts, because of American diplomacy and foreign assistance as well as the sacrifices of our military, more people live under elected governments today than at any time in human history.
And, finally, this paladin of liberalism declared:
I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.
When the “victim-demon dichotomy” media siren is turned on, any war, any bombing campaign, can be massaged to fit “core interests” and/or “human dignity”. We’re all exceptionalists now.
To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action. [My italics]
• The Conventional Wisdom Is Wrong. Libya’s 2011 uprising was never peaceful, but instead was armed and violent from the start. Muammar al-Qaddafi did not target civilians or resort to indiscriminate force. Although inspired by humanitarian impulse, NATO’s intervention did not aim mainly to protect civilians, but rather to overthrow Qaddafi’s regime, even at the expense of increasing the harm to Libyans.
• The Intervention Backfired. NATO’s action magnified the conflict’s duration about sixfold and its death toll at least sevenfold, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors.
The cynic would say, the real lesson is get the intervention over before anybody notices the atrocity stories have been “sexed up“. When they do, it’s too late and few remember. And it will work the next time around. And so the happily-married couple proceeds: “The West cannot stand by in Syria as we did for too long in Bosnia.”
That is Obama’s real legacy: the union – marriage – of the neocon assumption that America must “lead” with the liberal desire to “do good”. And the issue from the happy marriage? “The US is running out of bombs — and it may soon struggle to make more.”