SALINA, Kan. - Not that many were paying attention in our country, but the long reign of one of the world's most despotic dictators ended last month. And while the road ahead for Libya will be treacherous and uncertain, it will not be directed by Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi. President Obama and American diplomacy deserve a share of the credit.
Ever since the United States emerged as a world power in the aftermath of World War I Americans have struggled with the continuing question of when and whether to intervene in foreign conflicts. President Woodrow Wilson believed that American engagement with the world community would help prevent another world war. But a wave of isolationism swept the country in the aftermath of the "Great War," and the U.S. Senate refused to ratify United States' membership in the League of Nations.
When that isolationist strategy failed the U.S. took the lead in the formation of the United Nations following World War II. And while one can argue the UN's role in preventing another world war, we continually face the same isolationist/interventionist dilemma in regards to the many local and regional conflicts that plague our world.
Just in the last two decades we have seen situations arise across the globe in places such as Tiananmen Square (China) to Iraq, Somalia, Ruanda, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Burma, and now countries that have been swept by the so-called "Arab Spring."
There is no shortage of brutal dictators in our world. When should the U.S. intervene?
One of the principles in German Philosopher Immanuel Kant's philosophy was that if one has the power to remedy an injustice somewhere, he or she has a responsibility to do so." This argument would favor the interventionists. But calculations of cost (both in blood and treasure) and national interests also come into the equation.
In the 1990's the United States helped kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and intervened with air power to assist Kosovo in the face of Serbian oppression. But we stood by, for example, and watched the Rwandan genocide, and have not gone in to help the starving Somalis we have seen on our evening television news in recent weeks.
Cynics will say that the U.S. only acts when there are economic or geopolitical interests at stake.
There also has to be a calculation as to whether we actually have the power to influence a foreign conflict. Clearly we did not have the ability to greatly influence events in China in 1989, or Iran in 2009.
In the aftermath of the past decade's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the American public's appetite for military intervention has greatly waned. In the case of Libya, although Republican hawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham urged the introduction of U.S. ground troops, few seconded their call. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party led by Congressmen such as Dennis Kucinich opposed any intervention. But could the U.S. sit idly by and watch Qaddafi slaughter innocents? In a sparsely-populated country with a dictator with few international friends we had a chance to influence events.
President Obama seems to have found a middle course. He was willing to let NATO take the lead, assist the alliance, but made it clear there would be no U.S. "boots on the ground." One can assume that some masterful behind-the-scenes diplomacy took place, as both China and Russia, frequently at odds with the U.S. in the UN Security Council, abstained on a motion to authorize military intervention to protect Libyan civilians.
In the end Obama's strategy and patience paid off. And Libyans now have a chance to create their own future.