Why Libya?

We don't take this lightly.

A lot of people have been asking about why NATO has gone into Libya, and not into countries such as Syria and Bahrain, or Côte d’îvoire for that matter. Many are even asking why action in Libya is any more acceptable than action in Iraq (the French are very dependent on Libyan oil). Some people are struck by the claim that the Western powers are helping to free the Libyan people and give them democracy. To them, this sounds startlingly like something from one of Bush Jr.’s speeches. Many people point out that NATO is bombing Libyan targets like there’s no tomorrow (at least for Colonel Qaddafi). It is extremely important to understand why intervention in Libya is not just a re-run of past forays Western powers into the Arab world. The answer involves a lot of history of international politics, particularly concerning genocide and interventionism. However, I feel that giving the academic answer at length would not only take more time, but also provide less insight than putting together some very well chosen excerpts from a New Yorker article about how Obama has gone back on his word after promising get US forces out of conflicts in the Arab world. It is written by a journalist, Ryan Lizza, who traveled with Hillary Clinton to cover the democracy uprisings in the Middle-East. (Emphases are mine.)

The full, 10-page New Yorker article is available here:

Obama had always read widely, and [as a U.S. senator] he was determined to get a deeper education [in foreign policy]. He read popular books on foreign affairs by Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman. He met with Anthony Lake, who had left the Nixon Administration over Vietnam and went on to work in Democratic Administrations, and with Susan Rice, who had served in the Clinton Administration and carried with her the guilt of having failed to act to prevent the Rwandan genocide. He also contacted Samantha Power, a thirty-four-year-old journalist and Harvard professor specializing in human rights. In her twenties, Power had reported from the Balkans and witnessed the campaigns of ethnic cleansing there. In 2002, after graduating from Harvard Law School, she wrote “A Problem from Hell,” which surveyed the grim history of six genocides committed in the twentieth century. Propounding a liberal-interventionist view, Power argued that “mass killing” on the scale of Rwanda or Bosnia must be prevented by other nations, including the United States. She wrote that America and its allies rarely have perfect information about when a regime is about to commit genocide; a President, therefore, must have “a bias toward belief” that massacres are imminent. Stopping the execution of thousands of foreigners, she wrote, was, in some cases, worth the cost in dollars, troops, and strained alliances. The book, which was extremely influential, especially on the left, won a Pulitzer Prize, in 2003.

In March, I travelled to Cairo with Secretary Clinton. One evening, she was scheduled to meet with Egyptians who had been prominent in the protests that brought down Mubarak. However, one group, called the Coalition of Youth Revolution, which includes leaders from the activist movements and opposition parties in Egypt, boycotted the meeting. As Clinton talked with other civil-society members upstairs at the Four Seasons Hotel, four members of the abstaining coalition agreed to talk with me and three other journalists in the lobby.
I asked why they weren’t upstairs with the Secretary of State. “Hillary was against the revolution from the beginning to the last day, O.K.?” Mohammed Abbas, of the Muslim Brotherhood, said. “Obama supported this revolution. She was against.”

On March 16th, Clinton flew from Cairo to Tunis to continue her tour of revolutionary North Africa. The route took us over the Mediterranean just off the coast of Libya. The G.P.S. maps in the cabin of Clinton’s Air Force plane lit up with the name “Benghazi,” reminding everyone that, on the ground, Muammar Qaddafi’s men were marching on that city. Earlier in the day, Qaddafi had gone on the radio to warn the citizens of Benghazi. “It’s over. We are coming tonight,” he said. “We will find you in your closets.”

Protesters had started to gather in Benghazi on February 15th. Qaddafi’s security forces reacted with violence four days later, firing on a crowd of some twenty thousand demonstrators in Benghazi and killing at least a hundred of them. On February 26th, the United Nations passed a resolution that placed an arms embargo and economic sanctions on the Libyan regime and referred Qaddafi to the International Criminal Court. Two days later, the U.S., through lobbying led by Clinton and Power, helped remove Libya from its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. By tightening an economic noose around Qaddafi and isolating him diplomatically, Obama and the international community were beginning to use the tools that Power had outlined in “A Problem from Hell.”

The debate then narrowed to whether the United States and others should intervene militarily. The principal option was to set up a no-fly zone to prevent Libyan planes from attacking the protest movement, which had quickly turned into a full-scale rebellion based in the eastern half of the country. The decision about intervention in Libya was an unusually clear choice between interests and values. “Of all the countries in the region there, our real interests in Libya are minimal,” Brent Scowcroft told me. For a President whose long-term goal was to extricate the U.S. from Middle East conflicts, it was an especially vexing debate.

Within the Administration, Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, was the most strenuous opponent of establishing a no-fly zone, or any other form of military intervention. Like Scowcroft, Gates objected to intervention because he did not think it was in the United States’ vital interest. He also pointed out a fact that many people didn’t seem to understand: the first step in creating a no-fly zone would be to bomb the Libyan air defenses. Clinton disagreed with him and argued the case for intervention with Obama. It was the first major issue on which she and Gates had different views.

Late that evening, at her suite at the Westin hotel in Paris, Clinton met for forty-five minutes with Mahmoud Jebril, a representative from the Libyan opposition. I waited in the lobby with a number of reporters, hoping to talk to Jebril after the meeting. But all we got was Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher, who had taken up the cause of the Libyan opposition and was shepherding Jebril to his meetings with diplomats. We later learned that Jebril was dejected by Clinton’s unwillingness to commit to the no-fly zone and, not wanting to face the press, left the hotel by another exit.
The next evening, Obama held a meeting in the Situation Room. By then, it had become clear that the rebels, who had once seemed on the verge of sweeping Qaddafi out of power, were weak, and poorly armed; they had lost almost all the gains of the previous days. In New York, the Lebanese, the French, and the United Kingdom had prepared a U.N. resolution to implement a no-fly zone, and the world was waiting to see if Obama would join the effort. The White House meeting opened with an assessment of the situation on the ground in Libya. Qaddafi’s forces were on the outskirts of Ajdabiyah, which supplies water and fuel to Benghazi. “The President was told Qaddafi is going to retake Ajdabiyah in twenty-four hours,” a White House official who was in the meeting said. “And then the last stop on the train is Benghazi. If he got there, he would complete the military offensive, and that could be the place where he goes house to house and where a massacre could occur.”
Obama asked if a no-fly zone would prevent that grim scenario. His intelligence and military advisers said no. Qaddafi was using tanks, not war planes, to crush the rebellion. Obama asked his aides to come up with some more robust military options, and left for dinner. At a second meeting that night, he was presented with the option of pushing for a broader resolution that would allow for the U.S. to protect the Libyan rebels by bombing government forces. He instructed Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., to pursue that option.
On March 17th, I interviewed Clinton in Tunis. She was sitting under a canopy by the hotel pool, eating breakfast. Although she had been noncommittal with the diplomats in France two days earlier, she now made it clear that the Obama Administration had made a decision. It was well known that she favored intervention, but she was frank about the difficulty in making such decisions. “I get up every morning and I look around the world,” she said. “People are being killed in Côte d’Ivoire, they’re being killed in the Eastern Congo, they’re being oppressed and abused all over the world by dictators and really unsavory characters. So we could be intervening all over the place. But that is not a—what is the standard? Is the standard, you know, a leader who won’t leave office in Ivory Coast and is killing his own people? Gee, that sounds familiar. So part of it is having to make tough choices and wanting to help the international community accept responsibility.”

Gradually, it became clear that the U.S. was serious. Clinton spoke with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, who had previously told her that Russia would “never never” support even a no-fly zone. The Russians agreed to abstain. Without the cover of the Russians, the Chinese almost never veto Security Council resolutions. The vote, on March 17th, was 10–0, with five abstentions. It was the first time in its sixty-six years that the United Nations authorized military action to preëmpt an “imminent massacre.” Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, wrote, “It was, by any objective standard, the most rapid multinational military response to an impending human rights crisis in history.”

If you know anything at all about the genocides that have occurred in the past few decades, you probably know that many people who were in positions of power at those times have since expressed extreme shame and regret for not doing more to push for intervention. Personally, I see Obama’s decision to support the intervention, when NATO needed US resources to do so, as fulfilling one his promise of “Change”, if only in the area of foreign policy. This is not a repeat of past mistakes. It was not in the US’s interests to get involved in Libya, in fact it was extremely contrary to them in many ways; but nonetheless Obama had his finger on the button, as the international community looked to American support in order to act effectively (or at all).

Following the crisis in Libya in the days before NATO intervention, I saw, and I think a lot of people saw, that Qaddafi was not going to let the challenge to his authority go unpunished. There would have been a massacre in Benghazi, and before Western powers got involved, few even in the West denied that Libyan government forces were about to commit something that would later be considered yet another genocide that could have been prevented. The war in Libya marks the first time the international community has decisively stood up to a murderous tyrant (see the reports of massacres of peaceful demonstrators in the weeks before NATO intervention). If you think things couldn’t have been worse in Libya if we had stayed out of it, read up on Romeo Dallaire, perhaps the most tragic hero of our time.

Again, the article is available here:


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