Less than two days after the start of attacks on Libya by the United States, British, and French warplanes and missiles, and as news and images of civilian casualties and destroyed buildings spread, powerful dissenting voices are being heard. Russia, which abstained from the United Nations vote, cites civilian casualties in calling on Britain, France, and the U.S. to stop using “non-selective” force; China, which also abstained, has expressed regret over civilian casualties. Turkey has blocked NATO from taking over the enforcement of the no-fly zone. Above all, the 23-state Arab League — which, by supporting Britain and France in their proposal for a U.N.-enforced no-fly zone, provided essential credibility and thereby persuaded President Barack Obama to back the idea — has expressed its doubts. The League's Secretary-General, Amr Moussa, condemns “bombardment of civilians.” In addition, the operation is already showing what is euphemistically called mission creep, with Muammar Qadhafi's ground forces and his own residential compound being targeted.

The parallels with other episodes of western military adventurism since the early 1990s grow stronger by the day. First, the limitations of air power have been repeatedly exposed. In Kosovo, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair were so terrified of casualties among their own forces that they ordered bombing from 15,000 feet, which was inaccurate and ineffective. That mission rapidly expanded to include attacks on Serbian infrastructure. In Afghanistan, indiscriminate NATO bombing has taken a huge and continuing civilian toll and caused great enmity towards the invading westerners. Now, although Libya's anti-aircraft defences have been attacked, the regime can still make low-level sorties very dangerous. That raises the spectre of a land invasion, despite the U.N. Resolution's explicit interdiction. Furthermore, like George W. Bush, the western protagonists have been less than clear about their purposes. U.S. commanders say regime change is not part of the plan. But British Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox says Mr. Qadhafi is a “legitimate target”, and Prime Minister David Cameron insists that the Libyan leader must go. An even uglier element the current attacks have in common with the 2003 invasion of Iraq is the domestic political factor. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, facing heavy electoral defeat in 2012, thinks he has nothing to lose by international grandstanding. The parallels therefore must include the morality tales of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Countless Iraqi civilians paid for that with their lives. Now Libyan civilians are dying to get Mr. Sarkozy re-elected, and Mr. Obama, by backing the attacks on Libya, is following in his far-Right predecessor's footsteps.

Correction

(Arab league has 22 members and not 23 members as mentioned in the Editorial, “Obama in Bush's footsteps” (March 22, 2011). If the suspension of Libya last month is taken into account it is 21 now.)

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