Libya and selective US intervention

March 25, 2011

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

“We stand for universal values, including the rights of the … people to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and the freedom to access information.”

–President Barack Obama, during the Egyptian mass uprising against a detested dictator.

“The United States is … to construct an architecture of  values that spans the globe and includes every man, woman and child. An architecture that can not only counter repression and resist pressure on human rights, but also extend those fundamental freedoms to places where they have been too long denied.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a foreign policy speech in September.

That is the theory — U.S. foreign policy in defense of universal values. In practice, the United States has often been unable or unwilling to live up to the values it preaches. Like other big powers, it has placed its self-interest first, which meant dividing the world into acceptable and unacceptable authoritarians. Soaring rhetoric since the beginning of the pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world notwithstanding, the gap between theory and practice is in full view again.

In an act of selective intervention, the U.S., France, and Britain launched air and missile strikes on Libya on March 19 to prevent the government of Muammar Gaddafi from using “illegitimate force” against Libyans demanding his ouster and clamoring for the same freedoms the Obama administration, after dithering and zig-zagging, eventually cheered in Egypt.

While Gaddafi’s brutal crackdown on opponents provoked a war, equally ruthless repressions (though on a smaller scale) of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain and Yemen prompted rhetorical American slaps on the wrists of the respective rulers, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 33 years, and a royal family which declared martial law in Bahrain this week.

So why Libya and not Yemen and Bahrain? Here is where lofty talk of universal values collides with self-interest and here is where policies the United States pursued for more than half a century live on. George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, put it succinctly in a 2005 speech in Cairo: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy … here in the Middle East.”

It still does, where Yemen and Bahrain are concerned. As a newly leaked cable (dating back to 2005) from the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital put it: “Saleh has provided Yemen with relative stability … but has done little to strengthen government institutions or modernize the country. As a result, any succession scenario is fraught with uncertainty.”


Uncertainty in a tribal country that is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the stuff of nightmares for the U.S. government, which has been counting on Saleh’s cooperation in the fight against AQAP. So, there has been no public American push for him to step down, not even after the killing of 52 pro-democracy demonstrators in a Sana’a square on March 18. Washington shrugged off a call by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, for a suspension of military assistance to Yemen.

Which brings to mind a remark attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, more than 60 years ago, about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a son of a bitch but he is our son of a bitch.” Who says there is no consistency in U.S. foreign policy?

In the case of Bahrain, too, U.S. national interests trump universal values. The tiny island, connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, there to guard shipping lanes that carry around 40 percent of the world’s tanker-borne oil. Saudi Arabia sent more than 1,000 troops into Bahrain to help the royal family in a ruthless crackdown on dissent.

With martial law imposed, the freedoms of which Obama spoke so approvingly when the Egyptians ousted Hosni Mubarak have been suspended in Bahrain. Hillary Clinton’s talk of an “architecture” to extend fundamental freedoms “to places where they have long been denied” sounds quaint in this context.

But critics of Washington’s dealings with the world should take note that hypocrisy and double standards are not an American monopoly. Take France and Britain, for example, the United States’ main partners in the attack on the Libyan government. Neither country has a record of unselfish promotion of human rights and freedom, not recently and even less in their colonial pasts. Is hypocrisy the inevitable byproduct of power politics?

What makes the United States particularly vulnerable to charges of double standards is its proclivity to going around the world preaching values it cannot live up to — and to portray itself as more moral and righteous than other nations.

In his State of the Union speech in January, Obama followed a long tradition of American leaders in describing his country in superlative terms. America, he said was “not just a place on the map but the light to the world.”

A fine phrase. It clearly does not mean that universal values are applied universally.

(You can contact the author at


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Posted by Libya and selective US intervention | Bernd Debusmann | Analysis … | Report as abusive

Mr. Debussman leaves out some things:
1) Gaddafi stated his intent to hunt down and kill large amounts of civilians like rats, and then deployed his army to do so. Yes, there is a matter of scale here. Surely the writer does not suggest military intervention every time protesters are suppressed or gunned down.
2) This is a NATO and coalition action to enforce a UN resolution, not a US action.
3) Neighboring Arab nations requested this intervention and are participating as part of the coalition.

Posted by RynoM | Report as abusive

Universal values lack a universal definition, so every polittician can and does promote it knowing full well it means something different when applied to different countries and in time. ie. universal values can change according to the circumstances, this is especially problematic when applied in the domestic situation.

Although arab countries requested intervention, they did so unenthusiastically,only Qatar has sent jets to help the others are still in transit.

Finally even though the arab counties asked for help, these requests can be ignored just like they are when Israel and the Palestinians have a spat.

Posted by vard3 | Report as abusive

A plain fact, nothing new to anyone outside the U.S.

Posted by mathhero | Report as abusive

The slippery slope contains nuances and caveats with each circumstance.

Yes, there is a case to be made to take action in each instance where there are atrocities perpetrated against those who ask for the rights and freedoms we hold sacred.

None of the uprisings appears to be fomented by religious zealots or radicals that have embraced global terrorism.

Rather this seems to be people who have gained access to the broader world through the Internet and have seen that those living in free and democratic societies have something they do not enjoy in the Arab world.

The repression in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lybia and other countries of their kind are confronted with a social evolution they can no longer control.

The genie is out of the bottle, and he wears the garb of human rights, equality and democracy.

Some countries are working to buy the loyalty of their people through social welfare, others are doing it through the barrel of a gun, but if Egypt and others evolve into true democracies, absent the corrupting influence of the Imams, there won’t be enough bullets or dollars to contain the will of the masses.

Posted by NobleKin | Report as abusive

I think Debussman hits it right on the spot. The US engages in selective interventions and maintains policies that are not democratic or transparent to maintain its vital interests. Its no secret.

What is not a secret either is that this isnt just about US interests globally. The US also does the same thing at home against its own people! The US has bailed the rich and powerful bankers and other leveraged companies at the expense of the average citizen. Its not about US interests at all. Its about US power elite intersts. The american people dont want us in Lybia, nor in Iraq, and not in Afghanistan either.

This is about big money controlling the destinty of countries at the expense of average citizens in their homelands and abroad. Thats the reality. Thats the game. And ALL countries are doing. Protestors are not about democracies, there about sharing the wealth of the country and opening opportunities for everyone, whether its a religios state, a democracy, constitutional monarchy. This is a fight against intolerable corruption of the leaders globally.

Americans will rise up when the US runs out of money to keep them quiet, just like Saudi is trying to do.

We are all much similar than you think.

Posted by Ernesto11 | Report as abusive

Give the yanks a break. A lot of the rhetoric is for domestic propaganda, via smelly Sox News.
The Global Police are busy fighting islamic expansionism and turkmen separatism for China, and sunni extremism and sadaam arab ego for Iran.
They would have taken their time on Libya, and just put up tape and taken photographs, but for Nicholas.
The vain old tart seems to have promised a great party when the rebels marched on Sirte for Tripoli, and the eastern oilfields could fund reconstruction. But only the boys showed up, and the german and turkish guys did not get invites and are outside and angry.
Could be worse, if “universal values are applied universally”, trying to do a No Fly over Ukraine to protect non Russian speaking separatists.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Goddafi was literally going house to house, shooting people, bombing his own people with airplanes, and basically committing murder on a wide spread scale. Bahrain and Yemen do not even begin to compare to what was occurring in Libya. All told, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of casualties in Libya.

The limited US response to Bahrain and Yemen is limited, because the atrocities committed by their respective governments is limited as compared to Libya.

Posted by MetaVita | Report as abusive

America can’t afford to police the entire world. We have religious fanatics and greedy corporate elites corrupting our society for their own self interest too.

My heart goes out to people struggling for their freedom, but the US can’t fix everything, especially given the scale of the problems we have at home.

As a US citizen it is my priority to fix America first. I care about the rest of the world deeply, but my home country is more important to me than foreign countries.

Posted by rtgunlimited | Report as abusive

If Obama gave a damned about human rights and the killing of innocent civilians, he would start by bombing the s**t out of Israel for what they’ve done and continue to do to the Palestinian people. Yet our government continues to turn a blind eye to this most horrid of human rights abuses, abuses that are paid for largely with US tax dollars.

Posted by Jvasconcelos | Report as abusive

I think Hillary grew up with Star Trek and wants to go where no man has ever been before…..Did she ask the people she wants to liberate if they where ok with that? Forced freedom is not what the international community needs.

Posted by azereta | Report as abusive

Hey “Burned”…instead of constantly bashing America, how about a thoughtful analysis of how Europe can improve the plight of the Roma, who are victims of blatant discrimination in all European countries. Got any clever answers?

Posted by scarr34 | Report as abusive

Good discussion Bernd..I see you are questioning the benevolent dictator role and that is good. You should also check into how thermite is used to bring down well engineered buildings in controlled demolitions. It is the only effective way to get buildings to collapse neatly into their foundations. Interesting how a 9.0 quake didn’t bring down a single Japanese skyscraper; buildings in New York just don’t behave that way!

Posted by Greenfelder | Report as abusive

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Posted by Libia y la intervención selectiva de EEUU [ENG] | Report as abusive

Similar situation in Sri Lanka. The US government (openly, shamelessly admitted recently) provided military aid to the suppressive regime of Sri Lanka to put down the rebel movement. The result: more than 40,000 civilians massacred within a spate of weeks. The West stood by and watched, completely ignoring the pleas for help. Now the US government does not want to prosecute Sri Lanka’s leaders, despite them being US citizens and is attempting to play down the casualty figures all in the interest of strategic gains. Thi is just another classic example of supporting a dictator to meet its own selfish interest at the expense of the suppression of another people. Secret visits by Sri Lankan government officials are accorded by the US and vise-versa.

Thanks to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for keeping up the pressure.

Posted by SalTheCat | Report as abusive

Bernd how many factions in control of parts of the world ever since the dawn of time have NOT been far better at ‘talking the talk’ than ‘walking the walk’ of treating everyone within their control especially those against them the same? You may most certainly include communists in all this. That’s the world we live in no matter how much you’d rather it not be.
There’s a stated reason or excuse for doing these things (USS Maddox) and there’s also the real reason. One could see both most of Europe and the US wanted this to happen so my guess is there is a very good real one. Let’s hope in the end, they accomplish more than taking a lid all the way off of a box.

Posted by LuckyGrad68 | Report as abusive

The US is a stinking, burnt-out and decaying corpse of what it was. Nowadays the entire world knows that the US exists only for itself and its’ own interests.

By definition the USA is hardly even a country anymore. The US is completely dependent on foreign money and energy. More than 65% of the American daily energy consumption is based on imported oil. Understand that. Let it sink in. There is no USA without foreign oil, beginning and ending of story. The gig was up when energy policy became national security policy. Further, without foreign countries continually buying into the American debt ponzi scheme the wheels would have stopped turning long, long ago.

The US is almost completely broken, just barely standing on the shoulders of the dictators that permit cheap US oil at the cost of their own citizens well being.

Remember that the founding fathers of America were steadfast against democracy, do not forget this fact. And irony of irony is that the US touts ‘democracy’ all the while living in terror if the idea of a ‘muslim democracy’.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

gadhafi pushed out bin laden around 6 years ago when they tried to get in the country now the rebels force is led by a man who fought against us in afganistan a few years back are we going to give libya to them? we may not like him but he,s on our side

Posted by faye56 | Report as abusive

Well said Bernd,

“Extend fundamental freedom everywhere in the world” needs to be unselfish. There are other dictators much worse than Gadhafi. Gadhafi wanted to cleanse Libya house by house.

There are other genocidal regimes (some with no oil) still carrying out ethnic cleansing and minority subjugation with oppression to media.

Posted by RussellB | Report as abusive

What was said was correct but hardly a revelation. Another way of looking at it is as David Cameron said. Just because we often don’t do the right thing doesn’t mean we should never do the right thing. In this case it was morally justified and doable. The Libyan regime has a small army which is falling apart absent its heavy weapons. The core and privileged security forces have much to lose but the other half have no loyalty. The leader is unstable and has killed westerners before. So it should not be a difficult decision to topple him when it is doable, morally acceptable and in our self-interest.

Posted by JK22 | Report as abusive

Well, as usual the author makes a series of factually accurate statements, but does little to aid understanding, leaving the reader with a somewhat hollow feeling. Does the author propose intervention everywhere we see a lack of democracy or human rights OR does he propose that we cease promoting these values through our words and occasionally our actions? Or perhaps we should only preach our values in places we think we can make a difference, leaving the vast majority of miserable places unnoticed. Obviously, none of these three options are desirable, leaving the path that is actually pursued by the US: continuous moral support for those seeking freedom and occasional intervention… when and where we can make a difference. In reality, this is the only feasible approach.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

I take as a given that it is impossible for sovereign states to be consistent in any meaningful way, and that there are degrees of pretense to projecting consistency.

What interests me here is that there isn’t any particular US interest in eradicating the world of Gaddafi, and apart from the bluster of attacking his own people bent on attacking him (a peculiarly internal matter, one might even argue) no new one from a month or so ago.

So given that world leaders pick and choose their rationales like fruit at a Middle East market, we can only judge (I think) the intent by how far today’s rationale is from self-interest. As I see it, Obama’s failure here is entirely in the realm of domestic politics, which as these things go is exactly the right place you want to weak when lives are at stake.

Which has no bearing on the creation of a new precedent that cannot possibly be consistently adhered to without new conditions to tomorrow’s rational for action, or inaction.

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive

It is hard to comment when not all the pieces of the puzzle are even on the table for putting together. Somewhere and somehow the minority, or majority, must be allowed to speak and to be part of the decision making process. There can be stability even with discord. Everyone has to ask, “Could I do Better”?

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive


Last time I checked it was a NATO conducted intervention. Not just the United States.

And, YES, our National Security (Corporate America), comes first before any thing else. Pays the bills.

America, work in progress, since 1776. Still better than most.

Posted by Av8ts | Report as abusive

Forgive me for saying but as a new follewer of this website & currently on a 3 week vacation inFrance & Spain I can’t help feeling that we’re losing a grip on reality. The problems in the middle east are not something we should ignore & as a sceptic towards politics in the UK (where I am a resident) or any
other civiilised community I find it hard to take in the attrocities that are going on the world over. Whether it be Iraq, Sudan, Libya, The Congo wherever……. ! Am I the only person in this god forsaken world that thinks the natural & unnnatural warings of this precious planet that we take so much for granted is giving us warnings ? ! Christ ! ! We are our own worst enemies & although I find it incomprenhensible about what is going on in the oppressed/depressed world. I just can’t help feeling that the planet i was born in to is so out of my influence or control. If only we could see the planet that we have left our Great/Grandchildren to inherit then possibly we might have second thought’s on the thing’s we do now ! To be honest, I’ve spent enough time thinking about something I have no influence on. In with anger out with LOVE !!!

Posted by ibizaal29 | Report as abusive

Bernd leads the way; but increase the momentum with and maybe some day we’ll bring back sanity for our children. Human rights and universals should be the guiding light for policy—not 2500 year old dogma or hypocritical special interests.

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