By Miles Unterreiner
The United States has long gone abroad, John Quincy Adams’ dictum notwithstanding, “in search of monsters to destroy.” We first sent our soldiers to Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines, heralding the advent of a fin-de-siecle American empire under the banner of humanitarian intervention. Our doughboys slew the gorilla of German militarism in the trenches, in pursuit of Wilson’s demand that the world “be made safe for democracy.” American forces intervened in Haiti in 1915, in Korea in 1951, in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in the 60s and 70s, in Kuwait in 1991, in Bosnia in 1995, and in Iraq and Afghanistan after the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
History’s verdict on U.S. intervention has been a decidedly mixed one. Scholarly and popular opinion varies greatly depending on the military action to which one points. No one much questions, for example, America’s involvement in the First and Second World Wars; U.S. and Allied action against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 remains widely popular; and NATO strikes against Serb forces in Bosnia likely helped avert the cataclysm of deliberate genocide. Indeed, the U.S. has sometimes been criticized for not intervening when we could have done so; Rwanda in 1994 remains the quintessential (and most gruesome) instance of unacceptable American inaction in the face of widespread civilian slaughter. But operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have aroused the ire of groups from across the political spectrum, and few of genuine liberal credentials buy the Bush administration’s insistence that intervention was justified in order to install democracy, protect women’s rights, and destroy the monster of Taliban supremacy.
Most recently, however, American forces have played a strategic role in conducting airstrikes against the forces of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddhafi, largely on the grounds that not doing so would likely lead to the massacre of innocent demonstrators and civilians. Surprisingly, a broad political consensus about President Obama’s (belated) decision to contribute American resources to a NATO-led humanitarian intervention has emerged. Its advocates are odd political bedfellows indeed; John Kerry, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Clinton, Nick Kristof, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman are all on board this particular Pequod, Gaddhafi-slaying harpoons at the ready.
So is Libya the next Vietnam – a disaster waiting to happen, a monster the U.S. should simply be content to leave alive? Or is it another Rwanda – a name, should we let our opportunity to halt the advance of genocide slip, that will remain forever a line in the long litany of American mistakes and misadventures? This article argues that it is decidedly the latter, and that if anything, the U.S. has contributed too little, too late, to the anti-Gaddhafi effort in Libya.
The Moral Reasons
First, as Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler pointed out in the New York Times, Libya remains a prime testing ground for the United Nations’ new “responsibility to protect” (RtoP) doctrine, endorsed by over 150 nations at the UN World Summit in 2005. The doctrine, which holds that international action may be authorized “to protect [a state’s] population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” is under a severe test in Libya as we speak. If Gaddhafi is allowed to continue without consequence his methodical liquidation of his own civilians – a liquidation he promised to carry out “house by house” – RtoP will become all but a dead letter in international law. We must not and cannot let that happen.
Second, unlike Iraqis and Afghanis in Iraq and Afghanistan, Libyans actually want us in Libya. The Times’ intrepid Nick Kristof, a champion of human rights if ever there was one, covered a “thank-you rally” for American intervention in Benghazi, a rebel-held eastern Libyan city whose residents would almost certainly be massacred in the event of a government victory. He also tells the story of a downed American fighter pilot rescued by Libyan villagers enthused about his exploits against the hated Gaddhafi. Surely the moral rectitude of military intervention is bolstered, if not guaranteed, by the support of citizens in the country in which we’re intervening.
Third, military intervention in Libya is being conducted with the approval of the United Nations, the world’s only (if imperfect) hope for the eventual triumph of international peace. Indeed, the lack of support for intervention from two major world powers – China and Russia – only bolsters the moral case for military action. Both regimes justify the oppression of their own people under the guise of state sovereignty – a strategy not unlike that of the antebellum Southern states’ convenient embrace of “states’ rights” on the question of slavery. The uncooperativeness of both governments should not detract from the overwhelming international support for humanitarian intervention in Libya.
The Strategic Reasons
First, Western governments have taken pains to ensure the military involvement of the Arab League in the anti-Qaddafi crusade, making it difficult for future Monday morning quarterbacks to brand military action with the typical “imperialist” label. This was both a smart and a timely move.
Second, the United States must be seen as throwing its full weight behind the nascent Middle Eastern democracy we were too slow to support in Egypt and too inept to foresee in Tunisia. We have for far too long supported pro-American autocrats in a region where our strategic interests unjustly trumped the imperatives of human rights. This can no longer be allowed to happen. Supporting the young advocates for democracy and change in Libya and across the Maghreb and the Levant is a positive move for improving the frankly disastrous local perceptions of the U.S. In the long run, we must hope and believe that human rights will carry the day in the Middle East, as they have almost everywhere else. And when that day comes, it will be infinitely better for America to be able to genuinely say we supported that cause in its direst hour than to admit with humiliation that we forsook it when it needed us most.
Ultimately, by intervening in Libya, the United States is only helping the Libyan people in a noble endeavor, the success of which they cannot, for reasons of force and not of moral right, ensure only on their own. It is both morally and strategically crucial that we continue to support them. This monster is one we must destroy.