Prevention was a key component of the Bush Doctrine of foreign affairs which emerged after 9/11. The 2003 invasion of Iraq serves as a perfect example of anticipatory self-defense. The invasion occurred in anticipation of potential aggression from Iraq. The problem which arises, though, is that anticipatory self-defense is somewhat at odds with international law. Customary international law has long held that you don’t necessarily need to have been attacked already to defend yourself (see: Caroline affair). The codification of this law in the UN Charter reiterated this. After all, if you see the enemy approaching on the border with their guns pointed, you are well justified to take preventative measures. The threat really has to be imminent though, and this is where things get murky with Iraq. While there are some legal grounds for anticipatory self-defense, one would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that Iraq presented an imminent threat in 2003.
So why bring this up now? Well, for the third consecutive post to this blog, the answer is Libya. President Obama has come under a lot of political pressure to justify a war (yes, it’s a war) which does not appear to serve any significant American interests. This is a war for humanitarian reasons, a war of choice. President Obama is suggesting we have learned from our mistakes in Rwanda and Darfur and the United States is now committed to maintaining order even when it does not directly benefit it. Europe, meanwhile, must be learning its lesson from Yugoslavia.
But genocide has not occurred in Libya and it never seemed likely to occur. NATO is in fact engaged in a conflict of anticipatory humanitarian intervention. Sure, Qaddafi has killed his countrymen, but only in the context of a militant uprising. Regardless of the authoritarian nature of his rule over the past decades, that fact in and of itself distinguishes the Libyan conflict from the massacres which have plagued the international community’s conscience. And yes, Qaddafi has made vocal threats of “no mercy” for rebels, but should we interpret this as a signal of the slaughter to come, or simply the scare tactics of a tyrant struggling to hold on to power in the midst of a violent putsch?
Leaving aside the question of whether it’s even appropriate to intervene in a domestic conflict that doesn’t greatly threaten international peace and security, the fact of the matter is, the United States is not fighting to protect its own interests. It is not even fighting to halt an ongoing massacre. It is fighting in anticipation of a massacre which may or may not come. We must wonder, then, is the Obama Doctrine really so different from that of his predecessor? As the French would say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.