Is Intervening in Libya in American Interests?
Posted by Shadi Hamid
Does the US have a vital national security interest in Libya? It depends on how you define interests. But even if there's no clear-cut 'imminent threat' to U.S. security, that may actually be a good thing. The perception has long been that the U.S. only intervenes when it has "vital interests at stake." But, this time, we're presumably doing it to protect civilians, prevent a bloodbath, and assist those valiantly fighting for democracy. So the very fact that less may be directly at stake for the U.S. does not give me pause. If anything, that is another reason why this intervention should be applauded (isn't that why it's called humanitarian intervention?).
In any case, I happen to define "interests" more broadly than, say, Daniel Larison who has made strong arguments against intervention (including criticizing my recent post). One of the main sources of Arab antipathy toward America is our long, tragic history of supporting repressive dictatorships in the region. This five-decade-long bi-partisan policy gave us the self-destructing Arab world that we have now (and also contributed to the rise of Arab terrorism as Steven Brooke and I argue here). The "stability paradigm," - which is just about as "realist" as you can get - has proven a failure. It is critical, then, that the U.S. begin to align itself with forces of democratic change. Autocracies, after all, don't last forever. Libya is part of this bigger strategic picture. People have warned that applying the "responsibility to protect" in cases where autocracies massacre their own citizens could set a precedent. But that is precisely the point - it should set a precedent.
By contrast, if Libya fails, Qaddafi stays in power, and the rebels are crushed, it will mark the end of what's left of the Arab spring. It will send a dangerous message to autocrats: if you want to stay in power, do what Qaddafi did. We should also note that after a people are brutally and systematically crushed, it takes a long time for them to recover (Syria and Algeria are two instructive examples). This would end Libyans' dream of democracy for quite possibly decades.
Does Larison think that being remembered for letting Libyans get slaughtered is going to facilitate a promising future of U.S.-Arab relations? No, it will be another blot on America's record. That is why I found it odd that Philip Gourevitch cited our support for autocrats as a reason to be wary of intervention. Wouldn't it be the opposite? Others, like Ezra Klein and Andrew Sullivan, as well as Gourevitch have wondered why we haven't intervened in, say, Ivory Coast or Burma where atrocities were (and are) being committed. This is the argument I find the most difficult to wrap my head around. Doing nothing in two countries does not justify doing nothing in a third. Doing the wrong thing consistently seems no better to me than doing the wrong thing inconsistently. I'd rather us get this one right than none of them. We also have to be realistic: politics, and by extension, foreign policy is about the art of the possible. It would be very difficult to assemble an international coalition to intervene in Ivory Coast or Burma tomorrow. But that internatonal coalition is already in place in the case of Libya, receiving unprecedented Arab support (and U.N authorization). So to the question of why Libya, the answer is relatively straightforward: because we can - where, in other countries, we can't.
And this is yet another way Libya bears little resemblance to Iraq. As I argue in a recent Foreign Policy piece, where, in Iraq, we stood alone calling for war while most of the world opposed it, the dynamic, this time, was reversed. The United States - along with Russia, China, and Germany among the major powers - stood increasingly alone in opposing the emerging Arab and international consensus favoring intervention.
Let us now consider what is almost certain to happen in the absence of military intervention and then we can decide if that outcome is in the interests of the U.S. or the international community. Qaddafi would overrun Benghazi, an urban center of more than 1 million. Knowing what we know about Qaddafi, we can except brutal reprisals. Already thousands have been killed. But that would be nothing compared to the mass executions that Qaddafi would be likely to inflict on the rebel army and members of interim government. I don't know about you - but I have trouble understanding how people can be okay with sitting back and doing nothing, when, with military intervention, it could fairly easily be prevented. We can stop it. Moving to the strict "interests" rationale, it seems fairly self-evident that Libya, under an isolated Qaddafi, would likely return to attacking Western interests in the region, including through terrorism. He's done it before.
Some people might take issue with "moral imperatives" or how morality is very much part of how I conceptualize broader U.S. interests. But we aren't France (and even France has taken to talking about the honor of the West in face of dictatorship). We are the United States and the U.S., for both better and worse, has claimed to be a nation that stands for something beyond the nation-state. That's why people look to us for moral leadership, even if they're likely not to find it. We are not Botswana. And the president of the United States is not the premier of China. Moreover, it is declared U.S. policy under both the Bush adn Obama administrations that the U.S. will support the universal, democratic aspirations of the Arab people. In this sense, we have encouraged them to do what we would do in similar circumstances - resist repression and fight for their freedom.
In contrast, Greg Scoblete argues:
And as for America's security interests, it seems to me the over-riding security interest of the United States is to safeguard the lives and resources of its citizens and to put both on the line only when either are gravely threatened. Libya hardly meets such a standard.
I'm not sure Libya meets this "standard" either. But I don't really understand why this is the standard that military action in Libya should meet. The lives of American citizens were not at stake in Rwanda but I think most people now realize that that was a dire mistake. Our failure to act there will remain yet another tragic mark on not only our history but that of the international community.
Obviously, we need to have a broader conversation about America's role in a new, emerging Middle East? What do we have to say about U.S. leadership in an age of supposed Americna decline? We should think ahead. Doing the right thing not just in Libya, but elsehwere in the region, allows us an opportunity to re-affirm America's moral and political leadership at a time when there seems to be an absence of leadership on the world stage. It is not too late. And, one hopes, it is not too late for the Libyan people who still find themselves at the mercy of Qaddafi's advancing forces.