Given the past decades of direct European control in Africa and the Middle East, and the more recent US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is more than understandable that Africans and Middle Easterners are highly suspicious of the precise motives for the NATO intervention in Libya.
President Obama has a unique opportunity tonight to directly address these suspicions of Western intervention, which are a consequence of colonialism's legacy.
Perhaps more than any recent American leader, Obama appears uniquely qualified to make this speech. First he has considerable rhetorical skills. As an African-American, he had instant credibility in Africa and the Middle East, now under question. The Republicans have helped him here by branding him an anti-colonialist.
Seven strongly made points might dispel suspicions of Western motives:
- Neither the Afghans nor Iraqis asked for military intervention. But Libyan rebels have. This is an enormous difference. In addition, the Arab League and African Union nations on the U.N. Security Council supported the resolution authorizing force against Libya.
- That resolution permits "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians short of a foreign "occupation" of Libyan territory. This is clear diplomatic language for any military action against a regime that is killing its people. It even permits special forces or limited ground troop action, as long as they do not become an occupying force. This was clear to the AU and the Arab League before the vote, even if they've got their doubts now.
- The issue of "regime change" did not begin with the UN-authorized military action. It began on Feb. 15. The Libyan rebels are not a separatist group. They don't want their own country. They have wanted for more than a month to overthrow Gaddafi. They began the "regime change" effort, not the West.
- The faulty evidence of WMD in Iraq has badly damaged American credibility in the region. Developing world diplomats told me they did not believe a bloodbath in Benghazi was imminent. This is despite Gaddafi's own words of going "house to house" to "show no mercy" to the "greasy rats" rising against him. US intelligence must have had satellite imagery of Libyan forces poised to attack the rebel's capital. But skeptics dismiss reliability of such intelligence, invoking the faulty Iraq WMD intelligence. The president could create separation between intelligence gathered in Libya today and that in Iraq eight years ago. He could provide evidence of civilians killed by Gaddafi and also strongly contest Gaddafi's false claims that NATO is intentionally killing Libyan civilians. "We didn't sign up for mass killings," an African diplomat told me, believing Gaddafi's propaganda. It can be countered tonight with hard evidence to the contrary.
- The president could dispel the notion that the military operation is to put Libya in the Western camp or to get access to its oil. First, if anyone hasn't noticed, Gaddafi has already been in the Western camp, since 2003. And the West has been buying oil from him all this time, and even now there is no oil embargo on Libya. When the war is over the West will continue to buy oil from Libya. This does not appear to be about oil.
- The president could take on the charge of hypocrisy in choosing where to intervene. Why not in Bahrain or Yemen? Clearly the US has been using diplomatic pressure to get those two autocracies to reform, but overthrowing the Bahraini king, the US fears, could lead to an Iranian satellite on Saudi Arabia's Shiite coast and the end of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen could embolden al-Qaeda there. Both propositions are debatable, but it looks like the U.S. won't take any chances and could sacrifice wider democracy in those places for Real Realpolitik. But if the application of democracy in the region isn't universal that does that mean the West shouldn't intervene anywhere? Isn't it best to to protect civilians under threat trying to overthrow a madman in one country, even if you can't or won't elsewhere? A Bosnian asked me, why is he intervening now when he didn't to save Bosnia? In other words, should a past mistake be compounded by a new one?
- The last and most important point President Obama can make is to finally state out loud the real reason for this intervention: to help a rebel movement overthrow a vicious dictator. This is not a rebellion or invasion instigated by the West. It was begun by the Libyans themselves and is part of a region-wide uprising on a historic scale comparable to the French and Russian Revolutions. The UN's doctrine of responsibility to protect was also designed just for this moment: to intervene to stop an impending massacre. It is built on lessons learned after the failure to intervene in Rwanda and Srebrenica. Saving Benghazi was the morally right thing to do. But it's hard to use military force for the right reasons when it's been tainted so recently in the same region.
The president might say it's proper under this resolution to help the people end a regime threatening them by providing air cover and arming them if necessary. But trying to do this on the sly because of fear of raising the suspicion of a very jaded and offended developing world in fact is raising that very suspicion. Barack Obama can uniquely confront the issues of colonialism, American invasions in the region and the need to help people overthrow a very brutal regime without hidden Western motives. After all, if France had not come to the aid of American rebels against an autocratic Britain, would there even be a United States today?