Remember when a crusading president, acting on dubious intelligence, insufficient information and exaggerated fears, took the nation into a Middle Eastern war of choice? That was George W. Bush in 2003, invading Iraq. But it's also Barack Obama in 2011, attacking Libya.
For weeks, President Obama had been wary of military action. What obviously changed his mind was the fear that Moammar Gadhafi was bent on mass slaughter -- which stemmed from Gadhafi's March 17 speech vowing "no mercy" for his enemies.
In his March 26 radio address, Obama said the United States acted because Gadhafi threatened "a bloodbath." Two days later, he asserted, "We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi -- a city nearly the size of Charlotte -- could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."
Really? Obama implied that, absent our intervention, Gadhafi might have killed nearly 700,000 people, putting it in a class with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. White House adviser Dennis Ross was only slightly less alarmist when he reportedly cited "the real or imminent possibility that up to a 100,000 people could be massacred."
But these are outlandish scenarios that go beyond any reasonable interpretation of Gadhafi's words. He said, "We will have no mercy on them" -- but by "them," he plainly was referring to armed rebels ("traitors") who stand and fight, not all the city's inhabitants.
"We have left the way open to them," he said. "Escape. Let those who escape go forever." He pledged that "whoever hands over his weapons, stays at home without any weapons, whatever he did previously, he will be pardoned, protected."
Alan Kuperman, an associate professor at the University of Texas' Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, is among those unconvinced by Obama's case. "Gadhafi," he told me, "did not massacre civilians in any of the other big cities he captured -- Zawiyah, Misratah, Ajdabiya -- which together have a population equal to Benghazi. Yes, civilians were killed in a typical, ham-handed Third World counter-insurgency. But civilians were not targeted for massacre as in Rwanda, Darfur, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia or even Kosovo after NATO intervention."
The rebels, however, knew that inflating their peril was their best hope for getting outside help. So, Kuperman says, they concocted the specter of genocide -- and Obama believed it, or at least used it to justify intervention.