- - Wednesday, May 4, 2011


I’ve been reading blogs that try to list all the ways President Obama’s intervention in Libya is not like former President George W. Bush’s Iraq operation in 2003. There are differences, of course, but most of the explanations presented are transparent attempts to demonstrate that Mr. Obama’s intervention is legitimate but Mr. Bush’s wasn’t. It’s essentially a double standard. After all, Saddam Hussein had murdered more people than Col. Moammar Gadhafi had before anyone intervened. And Col. Gadhafi actually has worked with the United States to give up his weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programs, whereas Saddam actively resisted all United Nations efforts to verify what had happened to his.

The claim of “legitimacy” rests mainly on the argument that the U.N. Security Council authorized the Libyan action but not the Iraq War. But Security Council “authorizations” are tricky political things, and legitimacy isn’t solely associated with them.

Take NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo. Many of the people who supported it also favor the Libyan operation but opposed Iraq. Yet Kosovo did not have U.N. Security Council authorization; Russia wielded its veto threat. Kosovo apologists try to explain this by arguing that while the operation may not have been strictly “legal,” it somehow was “legitimate” because it had NATO’s endorsement.

This is political sleight of hand. If you can’t get the United Nations on board, NATO backing will suffice. But there is nothing in the U.N. Charter about “legitimacy.” NATO has no international mandate, as the U.N. Security Council does, vesting it with “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.” It is pure sophistry to suggest that a Security Council resolution wasn’t required for Kosovo but was for Iraq or Libya. The only consistencies I see in this line of thinking are: 1) those who favored the interventions in Kosovo and Libya but not Iraq have the support of France and 2) the U.S. president on duty in each case was not George W. Bush.

The fact is, in UNSC Resolution 1441, the Security Council cited its repeated warnings to Iraq that it faces “serious consequences” for “continued violations of its obligations” under U.N. resolutions. The Bush administration maintained that 1441 authorized the use of force as a serious consequence, given that it cited previous resolutions such as UNSCR 678 calling for member states to take “all necessary measures” (code for military action) to ensure compliance. Then Resolution 1483 recognized the U.S.-U.K. military coalition as the “authority” in Iraq and called on member states to support its efforts. This explicit endorsement, albeit after the fact, didn’t stop the critics who care little for U.N. endorsements that contradict their political position.

We also hear the claim that in Libya, civilian massacres were “ongoing,” whereas Saddam’s mayhem all happened before the intervention. This is a curious argument; it begs the question of why the United Nations and supporters of the Libyan intervention didn’t rise and demand a military intervention when Saddam was slaughtering hundreds of thousands of civilians and gassing more than 5,000 Kurds. In Libya, the World Health Organization estimates that Col. Gadhafi’s forces killed 2,000 in the run-upto the intervention. Sure, he could have killed more if unchecked, but why does that justify an intervention but Saddam’s butchery not?

There also is an argument that while a vast majority of Libyans demanded a no-fly zone, nothing was going on in Iraq that required our intervention. Perhaps the critics saying this forgot the huge celebrations in Iraq after Saddam’s downfall and outpourings of hatred for him after the war when people felt safe to demonstrate. Yes, sectarian strife led to a civil war and turned many Iraqis against the U.S., but that was after the fact.

Finally, there is the WMD argument. Critics allege that Mr. Bush lied about their existence in Iraq beforehand whereas Mr. Obama hasn’t engaged in any such false claims. Put aside the fact that leading up to the invasion of Iraq, everyone on the Security Council (and most members of Congress, for that matter, including Sens. John Kerry, Tom Daschle and Carl Levin in 1998) believed Saddam had WMD. They believed it because UNSCOM, the U.N. agency that documented Iraq’s WMD programs after the Gulf War, said so. Saddam bucked the U.N. and us at every step, presumably to trick the Iranians into thinking he still had them. Compare this with the fact that Col. Gadhafi rid himself of most if not all of his WMD programs by working with us and the international community. Whatever you say against him — and you can say a lot — we know a lot about his WMDs. That was not the case with Saddam.

Unfortunately, much of what passes for commentary on Iraq and Libya is pure revisionism. Commentators who value credibility should not falsify history to justify a military intervention by a president who fanned the flames of the anti-war movement against Iraq.

Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.

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