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Obama’s Unnecessary Wars and ‘Humanitarian’ Interventionism

Obama has probably done more to discredit "humanitarian" interventionism with his policies than any other recent president.
yemen airstrikes sa'ada

Earlier this week, I said that Obama’s legacy was war without end. I said that because I think that will be his most enduring foreign policy legacy, and because it is the part of his record that receives relatively little attention. What I didn’t mention in the previous post was that every war that the U.S. started or joined on Obama’s watch was not necessary for the security of the United States. Obama famously rode his opposition to a war of choice all the way to the White House, but has committed the U.S. to several completely unnecessary wars. I don’t think these wars were necessary for the security of our allies and clients, either, but that is another discussion.

The U.S. intervened in Libya in 2011 in the name of the “responsibility to protect.” No one even tried to pretend that U.S. interests were at stake in the Libyan war, and yet Obama committed the U.S. to an avoidable war anyway. The U.S. started ISIS bombing targets in Iraq and then in Syria. ISIS didn’t pose a threat to the U.S. then and still doesn’t, but Obama ordered a bombing campaign against them all the same. The U.S. wasn’t threatened by the Houthis in Yemen, but Obama has backed the Saudi-led war on Yemen in order to “reassure” Riyadh even though it is making the region more unstable and it is making America more enemies than we had before. The direct costs to the U.S. of all these bad decisions have so far been limited, but they are all costs that the U.S. didn’t need to pay for wars that we shouldn’t have been fighting. This is why I have difficulty crediting Obama as a “reluctant” hawk when someone genuinely reluctant to resort to force would not have involved the U.S. in any of these conflicts.

The very thin silver lining I see in all this is that Obama has probably done more to discredit “humanitarian” interventionism with his policies than any other recent president, and as a result there may be fewer of these destructive and misguided wars in the future. The Libyan war was both an abuse of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine that was used to justify it and an appalling failure when judged by the standard of protecting civilians. With any luck, it will become a cautionary tale for future presidents and a guide to what the U.S. should never do abroad. The later silence of the same advocates for the Libyan war while the U.S. was aiding the Saudis in wrecking and starving Yemen has been remarkable, and it has shown how selective and cynical “humanitarian” interventionists can be. When the U.S. or an allied or client government commits egregious abuses that gets other governments targeted for sanctions or even destruction, most so-called “humanitarian” interventionists have nothing at all to say.

Over the last twenty-two months, Yemen has been devastated with an indiscriminate bombing campaign that would normally drive the “do something” crowd up the wall if it were being done by the clients of another major power. Because it is being done by U.S. clients with our weapons, fuel, and intelligence, there is no criticism from them at all. They have nothing to say in those cases because for many of them these abuses are just a pretext to get a war that they support for other reasons. For them, war crimes count only when they can be used to drag the U.S. into new conflicts. If the U.S. is already deeply complicit in its clients’ war crimes, they couldn’t care less. Meanwhile, Yemen is suffering from one of the worst man-made humanitarian disasters of our time. The Saudi-led coalition’s blockade and other actions over the last two years bear much of the blame for the impending famine that threatens millions of lives. Once again, the moralizing meddlers that are always eager to talk about “values” have nothing to say about any of this, except when some of them (e.g., John McCain) stand up for the governments causing the disaster. The next time that we hear demands from such people that the U.S. must “act” in this or that part of the world to defend our “values,” remember their total silence about the catastrophe that the U.S. has helped to cause in Yemen and refuse to buy what they are selling.