Rwanda’s upcoming anniversary, though, is not the central one that comes to mind. In a grim coincidence of history, President Obama ordered “Operation Odyssey Dawn,” establishing a no-fly zone in Libya, to begin on March 19, exactly eight years after President Bush began his shock and awe campaign in Iraq.
For many grappling with the potential consequences of the United States entering a third military conflict with a Muslim country, it may be difficult to decide which historical analogy is more apt — that of our long quagmire in Iraq or the humanitarian crisis we failed to avert in Rwanda.
But to my mind, there are two important lessons to be learned from the debacle in Iraq that very clearly override the Rwanda analogy.
The first of those lessons involves a matter of principle. I opposed the war in Iraq because it violated international law and, despite the fig leaf of an international coalition the Bush administration tried to wrap it in, the war was essentially an unjustified, unilateral campaign to militarily eliminate Saddam Hussein’s regime. We paid a heavy price for our blatant violation of international law and disregard for global opinion. Indeed, President Obama was elected in 2008, in part, to restore America’s moral standing in the world. Toward that end, I believe the president was right to resist the initial calls for unilateral U.S. involvement in Libya.
The president did what George W. Bush refused to do in 2003: He made U.N. Security Council approval and active regional support pre-conditions for U.S. military action. He also took steps to try limit America’s military footprint, letting France and Britain take the lead and ruling out sending ground troops into Libya.
The administration was also careful to negotiate a U.N. Security Council resolution that states its goal as the protection of civilians rather than regime change. As a matter of principle, the administration’s decision to seek U.N. Security Council action is an important step toward a multipolar world that operates according to multilaterally determined global law and in the interest of the global community.
But while the administration consulted the United Nations, it failed to seek congressional authorization. As with the Iraq war, the war in Libya is a war of choice. The president is undertaking this action without congressional authorization. This is a continuation of a dangerous — and unconstitutional — precedent, one that President Obama himself opposed as a senator.