Libya, the US, and the Moral Imperative to Intervene
Posted by Shadi Hamid
Finally, after much "dithering" - which seems to be the consensus word choice for Obama's sputtering Mideast policy - the US has finally suggested that it can, sometimes, do the right thing, even if it does it three weeks later (I looked back to see when I had written my Slate article calling for international intervention - February 23).
The arguments against military intervention struck me as surprisingly weak and almost entirely dependent on raising the spectre of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was somewhat unclear how and why Iraq 2003 should be compared to Libya 2011. Michael Cohen, whose preference for foreign policy restraint is admirable, worried recently that John McCain and Joe Lieberman's support for a no-fly zone portended bad things to come. Just because McCain and Lieberman support something doesn't automatically mean it's bad.
Cohen writes that Iraq and Afghanistan "are daily reminders that the use of U.S. military force can have unforeseen and often unpredictable consequences." Yes, but that's sort of the point with bold action. It's supposed to be risky (in fact, if it's not, you may not be going far enough). Success isn't guaranteed. And no one is pretending that a positive outcome in Libya is a foregone conclusion now that the UN Security Council has adopted a resolution authorizing military force. But it does make a successful outcome more likely. Leon Wieseltier, in a moving must-read, writes:
It may be, as Clinton said, that the consequences of a no-fly zone would be unforeseeable, but the consequences of the absence of a no-fly zone are entirely foreseeable. They are even seeable.
For realists, I would love to hear how doing nothing in Libya was going to help U.S. security interests. Having an oil-rich pariah state that could very well return to supporting terrorism and wreaking havoc in the region would be disastrous, creating Iraq part 3 and making it more likely we'd have to intervene sometime further into the future, at much greater cost and consequence. Did we not learn from the quelched Shia uprisings of 1991? Or from standing by idly (or supporting) the military coup that ended Algerian democracy in 1991? The Arab world suffered for the international community's failure to do the right thing. Literally, hundreds of thousands died as a result. Having Libyans and Arabs feel that we betrayed them yet again would do wonders for our already plummeting credibility, particularly after the Obama administration has moved to back autocratic regimes in Bahrain and Yemen, rather than the peaceful protesters struggling for their freedom and getting shot in the process.
Another argument we heard endlessly the past three weeks was that Arabs wouldn't want another foreign intervention or that intervention would taint the protesters. Maybe we should have asked the Libyans themselves whether they agreed with this assessment, which, again, was based on an incorrect reading of the Iraq war. Libyan rebels have been pleading for Western military intervention for quite a while now. A child had held up a poster in Benghazi saying "Mama Clinton, please stop the bleeding." When you're bleeding you don't really care you saves you. You just want to be saved.
It is remarkable, and more than a touch ironic, that the Arab League, the GCC - made up entirely of autocrats - and the Organization of the Islamic Conference all supported a no-fly zone before the U.S. did (see my discussion of the Arab role here). This is the new American leadership. We will lead only after others lead first. Our credibility has a taken a major hit as a result, and offers more evidence that the U.S. seems congenitally unable to get on the right side of history even after history has already happened.
Doing nothing in Libya would also have set a dangerous precedent: that Arab (or any other) leaders could slaughter their own people with impunity. Now the precedent may be reversed, offering much-needed momentum not just to Libyan pro-democracy forces but to those fighting for freedom all over the region.
Sometimes showing "reticence" and "deliberating" are necessary. But sometimes decisive action is necessary, especially when civilians are being slaughtered (and this is where the "responsbility to protect" comes in). Cohen warns "that once the US gets involved in these type of interventions it can be awfully difficult and expensive to get out of them." He is right. This UN resolution is not the end. It is the beginning of a long, difficult road. To see this through, the US and its allies will need to more than just provide a buffer around Benghazi. The buffer zone will have to move along with the rebels - all the way toward Tripoli.