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Robert K. Lifton

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Is Military Action in The Middle East the Best Allocation of Our Nation's Limited Resources?

Posted: 03/21/11 05:15 PM ET

Once again, with the incursions in Libya, our nation is getting involved in military action in the Middle East. Although we are part of a coalition effort, as usual America is carrying out a large part of the action and at no small cost. Since our government representatives and the nation as a whole are so focused on the deficit and the national debt to the point of reducing funding for a number of important domestic programs, it seems fitting to ask whether these expenditures for military action in Libya, are warranted.

An appropriate criterion for deciding on military involvement and the concomitant expenditures would seem to be simply put- is it in our national interest? It is hard to see how our involvement in Libya is in our national interest. Yes, Gaddafi is a bad guy and deserves to be ousted. And in the past he is responsible for actions that deserve punishment. But in recent years he has not done anything contrary to American interests. Leaving him in power would not harm us. Yes, the rebels look like they are the good guys and deserve to win. It would be a shame if they were defeated and suffered from Gaddafi's retaliation. However, we know nothing about the rebels and how putting them in power will benefit our interests. And unhappily, there are large numbers of people in many parts of the globe who are also suffering from the actions of their own or other governments. We do not interfere to protect them.

Nor, are we involving ourselves in conflicts in other Middle East regimes such as Yemen and Bahrain. In Bahrain, the issues are further complicated by the religious conflicts involved between the Shia majority and the controlling Sunni minority. This has brought intervention by the Saudi military on the side of the government. In fact, the Saudi monarchy is itself concerned with possible challenges from its Shia minority. On the other hand, President Obama did put considerable pressure on Hosni Mubarak to relinquish his Presidency of Egypt, despite the strong advice by Saudi King Abdullah not to force him out. With Egypt's military now in control we don't know yet what will be the outcome of elections in that country. And what will be our approach if Syrian troops start killing their countrymen under President Bashar al Assad's orders. When his father, Hafez al-Assad's troops killed over fourteen thousand people in Hama in 1982, the world powers took no action.

Thus, the criteria for making the decision whether and when to get involved have not been articulated by President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton. Such an open ended policy makes it appear that our actions are based on nothing more than whim. As we make these decisions, we must do so based on clearly stated criteria that meet some form of "national interest" test. And we must be wary. Starting with the presidency of George W. Bush and the neoconservatives who influenced him, this country has evolved a belief system that it is to our benefit and indeed it is our mission to bring democracy to the Middle East. It has almost taken on an evangelical aspect, touching on religion as well as politics. Indeed, looking at the Arab countries through the prism of historian Bernard Lewis, reflected in his recent book "Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East, one might conclude that totalitarianism is a product of Islam, demonstrated by the failure of Arab nations to develop democratic institutions. Lewis was an influence on the Bush administration's decision to attack Iraq and eliminate Saddam Hussein; a decision that was enormously costly both in human pain and financial costs and in the end, has substantially benefited the Iranian theocracy which represents a far greater threat to us than Iraq.

All of these developments should teach us humility in thinking we understand the consequences of our actions in the Middle East and restrain us from acting unless our national interests are clearly affected and unambiguous. That has not been demonstrated with respect to Libya.

Robert K. Lifton, a businessman and political activist is writing a book entitled Life's Lessons and Stories from a Member of the 'Greatest Generation.'