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In the less-than-gracious way President Barack Obama compares himself to his predecessors and other mere mortals, we’ve come to expect oblique swipes at President George W. Bush. They’ve been sprinkled in Obama’s inaugural address (“we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals…our power alone cannot protect us”); in prime-time addresses (“the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world…I’ve spent this year renewing our alliances”); in his Cairo speech (“Iraq was a war of choice…there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq”); in his Ankara address (“Turkey’s democracy is your own achievement…not forced upon you by any outside power”); and now in his belated address to the nation announcing U.S. intervention in Libya. But what’s most intriguing about this address is that it took a swipe not only at Bush, but also at President Bill Clinton.
First, let’s look at what we’ve grown accustomed to, the verbal backhands at the Bush administration. Obama boasted that the Libya operation “carries with it a UN mandate and international support…If we tried to overthrow Khadafy by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs and our share of the responsibility for what comes next. To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq…regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives and nearly a trillion dollars.”
We should hope that Obama is able to oust Khadafy without putting U.S. boots on the ground, but he should know that once war begins mission creep is hard to contain. Just ask the elder Bush, who wanted a clean, clear-cut finish for the Gulf War, but ended up intervening in Kurdistan, occupying Saudi Arabia and unwittingly setting the stage for what amounted to a 20-year engagement in Iraq. And while we’re being blunt, we went down a very different road in Afghanistan, and yet even with a UN mandate and responsibility spread out among some 45 countries, regime change has taken 10 years, thousands of allied and Afghan lives, and hundreds of billions in treasure—and it’s still not over.
“American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves,” Obama added, an undeniable reference to the media myth contrived about his predecessor.
In fact, at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 35 countries contributed troops. Fully 21 of the European Union’s then-25 members supported the campaign in Iraq. Seventeen NATO members deployed troops to Iraq. NATO has been training Iraq’s army for the better part of a decade now. As late as 2007, after four years of war, 20 countries still had troops in Iraq. In short, Iraq was anything but unilateral—and hardly lacking in “international support.”
In defending his decision to intervene in Libya’s civil war, Obama intoned, “The writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security.”
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