Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Obama's Libya policy in light of Ghaddafi's cooperation with Cheney and Bush in torture

I wrote after last week's Vice Presidential debate that one of the problems not addressed in the arguments over Libya had to do with nuclear nonproliferation. Ghaddafi's was bad in numerous ways. But it had agreed to US demands to give up its nuclear weapons program, which was a positive thing for nuclear nonproliferation. However, by siding with the rebels against that regime, the Obama Administration surely raised questions in other countries' minds about whether cooperating with the US on nonproliferation is the most advisable thing to do. If a country has nuclear weapons, they have a strong deterrent against US invasion. If you give up seeking that deterrent at US demand, the Americans may well invade you anyway.

This is part of a broader contradiction between the US embrace of the policy of preventive war and our the nuclear nonproliferation policy.

(BTW, there's actually an argument to be made that US operations in nuclear-armed Pakistan constitute a partial exception to the deterrence framework I just stated. But a full-fledged US invasion aimed at regime change in Islamabad would be a different story.)

One of the bad sides of the Ghaddafi government in Libya with which the Cheney-Bush Administration actively collaborated was torture. Scott Horton summarizes the result of a Human Rights Watch report released this summer on that topic in CIA Waterboarding, Qaddafi Collaboration Revealed No Comment 09/06/2012. Closely aligning the US with the most brutal practices of a dictatorial regime can also have bad longer-term consequences:

The report, coupled with recent developments in Libya, also highlights the CIA’s chronic inability to distinguish between violent anti-American Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda and those who simply opposed their own oppressive regime and sought to overturn it. The Bush Administration promoted cordial relations with Qaddafi, while the Bush-era CIA worked intensively to develop a close rapport with Qaddafi’s security forces, much as it did in Egypt, Yemen and a number of other repressive Arab states. In 2011, the Obama Administration reversed course, siding with the rebels opposing Qaddafi and deploying military and intelligence resources to topple his regime. Many of the Libyan groups persecuted and abused by the CIA belonged to the alliance that toppled Qaddafi, and a number of their leaders are now in positions of importance in the new regime. Thus the CIA’s miscalculations could not have been more sweeping or more harmful to long-term U.S. interests.

In an important speech last year at Harvard University, CIA veteran and Obama counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan stressed that the administration’s Middle East policies emphasize the rule of law and respect for human rights. If that’s true, then the cache of evidence disclosed by the Libyan revolution and the comparable evidence that has emerged in Egypt point to the CIA as a rogue institution operating at dangerous cross-purposes with official U.S. policy. The agency aligned itself closely with the most abusive institutions in the countries where it was operating, and enabled the wanton torture of political opponents. Those tight relationships appear to have seriously warped its intelligence posture, leaving it dangerously blind to the developments that swept the Arab world early last year. Moreover, much of the conduct highlighted in the HRW report violated criminal statutes, including the Anti-Torture Act and the prohibition on renditions of persons to countries where they were likely to face torture.
These issues are unlikely to be much discussed in the second Obama-Romney debate. Because neither the Democratic nor Republican parties are willing to address some of these chronic problems in American foreign policy.

Even though I quote Stephen Walt all the time, I don't see myself as taking a Realist-theory view of foreign policy. I suppose of the major foreign policy schools out there, I'm more closely aligned with the liberal internationalist view, though I would like to think that a democratic internationalist view such as that in the original purpose of the European Union was a near-term possibility.

The US should be careful not to identify itself too closely with unpopular, un-elected regimes and especially not with their nastiest anti-human rights practices. In the world of nation-states that we have, it will always be easier to wag the finger at other countries than to honestly evaluate the United States' own record at any given moment. And when a country wants to go to war with another one, they suddenly become very concerned about bad human rights practices in the country they want to attack and kill lots of people.

World progress on human rights proceeds in fits and starts with lots of setbacks. But that shouldn't be an excuse not to keep trying.

I'm also disturbed that military interventions like that in Libya are often justified primarily on humanitarian grounds. But somehow the presence of oil or some geopolitical power concern seems to make it much easier for outside forces to intervene under the guise of "responsibility to protect."

Reducing nuclear proliferation and avoiding international wars should be overriding concerns that coexist with concern for human rights and the "responsibility to protect." Because the latter can and are used for excuses justifying military interventions that undermine the first two priorities.

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