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Why Libya 2011 is not Iraq 2003

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
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Libya and Iraq: What's different
  • Peter Bergen: Some compare military action in Libya to Iraq War
  • He says there are major differences, including Arab League's vote vs. Gadhafi
  • Bergen says the Iraq War was strongly opposed by Arab nations
  • Gadhafi is widely reviled in the Arab world, Bergen says

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is the director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation in Washington; a fellow at New York University's Center on Law and Security; and CNN's national security analyst. He is the author of the new book, "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda."

(CNN) -- A critique of the U.S. involvement in the military intervention in Libya that will no doubt be common in coming days is that the Obama administration is making a large error by embarking on a war with a third Muslim country, as if reversing Moammar Gadhafi's momentum against the rebels will be a rerun of the debacle of the war against Saddam Hussein.

A further element of this view is that -- whatever the outcome of the Libyan intervention -- the United States' standing in the Islamic world will once again be severely damaged by an attack on a Muslim nation.

There are, of course, some real similarities between Hussein and Gadhafi -- both ruthless and erratic dictators of oil-rich regimes who fought bloody wars with their neighbors, brutalized their own populations, sought weapons of mass destruction, and sired some equally unattractive sons and heirs.

The déjà vu quality of the Libyan situation may help account for recent polls taken before the intervention which found that while Americans were either split or slightly in favor of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, most were opposed to stronger U.S. military action.

The military intervention that President Obama authorized against Libya on a quite different operation than the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
--Peter Bergen
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  • Iraq
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  • Moammar Gadhafi
  • Saddam Hussein
  • United Nations

But the military intervention that President Obama authorized against Libya on Saturday -- eight years to the day after President George W. Bush announced the commencement of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" -- is a quite different operation than the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Beyond the obvious difference that Obama has not authorized the use of U.S. ground forces in Libya, there are several other differences to consider:

First, the Obama administration was handed a gift by the Arab League, which in its more than six-decade history has garnered a well-earned reputation as a feckless talking shop, but unusually took a stand one week ago by endorsing a no-fly zone over Libya.

That endorsement put the Arab League way out in front of the Obama administration, which was then dithering about whether to do anything of substance to help the rebels fighting Gadhafi.

The unexpected action by the Arab League gave the administration the impetus and diplomatic cover to then go to the United Nations Security Council to secure a broad resolution endorsing not only a no-fly zone, but also allowing member states to "take all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya.

This U.N. resolution is reminiscent of the one that President George H.W. Bush secured in November 1990, which gave Iraq six weeks to withdraw from Kuwait following Hussein's invasion of that country. The U.N. resolution in 1990 similarly empowered states to use "all necessary means" to force Iraq out of Kuwait if Hussein ignored the deadline.

The similarities do not end there. The coalition that massed to drive Hussein out of Kuwait involved significant forces from major Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. So too the Libyan no-fly zone will be enforced by Qatar, along with western powers such as France and the U.K.

This is all quite in contrast to George W. Bush's ineffectual attempts to gather international support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There was no U.N. resolution explicitly authorizing the use of military force against Hussein, and no Muslim countries participated in the American invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Indeed, before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Turkish parliament voted against allowing American troops passage across Turkey to invade northern Iraq, which put a wrench in U.S. military planning.

Underlining the fact that the Iraq War was widely viewed as illegitimate by Muslim countries, the same year that Turkey voted against allowing American soldiers to use its soil to attack Iraq, Turkish soldiers were also leading the International Security Assistance Force helping to keep the peace in post-Taliban Afghanistan, a military operation that was also authorized by the United Nations and was not seen as illegitimate by much of the Muslim world.

The Bush administration's largely unilateral decision to go to war in Iraq (the U.K. and a few other nations provided troops) undermined America's standing in Islamic countries. A poll taken a few months after the 2003 invasion found that Indonesians, Jordanians, Turks, and Moroccans all expressed more "confidence" that Osama bin Laden would "do the right thing" than that Bush would.

According to a poll four years later, America's favorability rating stood at 9% in Turkey (down from 52% before September 11, 2001) and 29% in Indonesia (down from 75% before September 11).

Finally, another key difference between the Iraq war and the Libyan operation is that the casus belli for Iraq was based on highly classified intelligence accessible to few people -- later proved to be wrong -- that Saddam Hussein continued to maintain a weapons of mass destruction program. By contrast, the Libyan intervention was caused by the real time evidence provided by the world's leading media organizations -- including, of course, Al Jazeera -- that Gadhafi is massacring his own people.

The high level of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world that was generated by the Iraq War is unlikely to be replicated by U.S. military action against Libya, because Gadhafi is widely reviled in the Arab world. His antics on the world stage have earned him the enmity of even his fellow autocrats -- who will not be welcoming him if he chooses to "retire" to Saudi Arabia as other murderous dictators of his ilk have in the past (think Idi Amin).

And the fact that both the Arab League and the United Nations have endorsed a military action against Gadhafi strongly suggests that the Libyan intervention will not generate a renewed wave of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world.

Instead, it underlines a striking feature of the protests that have roiled the Middle East in the past several weeks: Strikingly absent from those protests has been the ritualized burning of American flags, something that hitherto was largely pro forma in that part of the world. That's because Arabs have finally been able to express publicly that their biggest enemy is not the United States, but their own rulers.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bergen.

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