Conflict in Libya threatens to take Barack Obama down the path followed by George W Bush. It is a difference in style, rather than in substance, that has enabled Obama to avoid the hostility Bush encountered, for the American troops are still in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US defense secretary is still Robert Gates, who held the post under Bush. Opposition to Bush was often no more than a thinly veiled anti-Americanism; a desire to rid the world of American influence, but a world without American power may not be the utopia people believe.
The United States is the only power capable of any effective policing intervention on the international stage; without US power, even the United Nations is impotent.
Certainly, US politicians have got things seriously wrong; interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan threaten to create a last state that was worse than the first. Certainly, the Iraq sanctions policy of the Clinton regime in the 90s was not exactly benign in its effects, Secretary of State Albright conceded the policy had cost the lives of hundreds of thousands. Certainly, many people might feel a world free of American influence might not be such a bad place.
But what happens to the world when there are not US soldiers available to leap from Black Hawk helicopters? What happens when there is not a Humvee for hundreds of miles around? What happens when US warships are not on hand to launch missions into areas?
A United Nations’ force, without American teeth was in Kigali, capital of Rwanda in 1994. Hutu extremists had launched full scale genocide against their Tutsi neighbours and 2,500 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had sought refuge in a school that was the base for Belgian UN peacekeeping troops. The troops ensured the evacuation of white expatriates from the city before withdrawing from the school, leaving the fugitives there to be butchered. The soldiers did not fire a shot until dogs began eating the corpses and the commanding officer told his men to shoot the dogs.
It would be hard to imagine an American commander acting in a similar way, for the reason that he would not have to do so. He would generally be present with such overwhelming force and with such sophisticated equipment that a machete-wielding mob would present little danger.
In a world without an American presence, who is there left that might stop deliberate, wilful mass slaughter? In 1995, Dutch UN troops were powerless to prevent the massacre of 8,000 men and boys by Serbian forces in the supposedly “safe area” of Srebrenica. Would an American commander on the ground have been left in such a position of uselessness?
An isolationist America would bring comfort and delight to many people; few of them with democratic intentions. Without the Americans being prepared to intervene, the world would be a much more dangerous, and a much less liberal, place.