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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Is It Better to Save No One? -

Is It Better to Save No One? -

Critics from left and right are jumping all over President Obama for his Libyan intervention, arguing that we don’t have an exit plan, that he hasn’t articulated a grand strategy, that our objectives are fuzzy, that Islamists could gain strength. And those critics are all right.

But let’s back up a moment and recognize a larger point: Mr. Obama and other world leaders did something truly extraordinary, wonderful and rare: they ordered a humanitarian intervention that saved thousands of lives and that even Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s closest aides seem to think will lead to his ouster.

We were all moved by Eman al-Obeidy, the woman who burst into the reporters’ hotel in Tripoli with her story of gang-rape and torture, only to be dragged away by security goons. If we had not intervened in Libya, Qaddafi forces would have reached Benghazi and there might have been thousands of Eman al-Obeidys.

It has been exceptionally rare for major powers to intervene militarily for predominantly humanitarian reasons. One rare example was the United States-led Kosovo campaign in 1999, and another was Britain’s dispatch of troops to Sierra Leone in 2000 to end the brutal civil war there. Both were successes, but came only after years of killings that gradually built up the political will to do something.

Critics argue that we are inconsistent, even hypocritical, in our military interventions. After all, we intervened promptly this time in a country with oil, while we have largely ignored Ivory Coast and Darfur — not to mention Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.

We may as well plead guilty. We are inconsistent. There’s no doubt that we cherry-pick our humanitarian interventions.

But just because we allowed Rwandans or Darfuris to be massacred, does it really follow that to be consistent we should allow Libyans to be massacred as well? Isn’t it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?

If the Libya operation is successful, moreover, it may help put teeth into the emerging doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” — a landmark notion in international law that countries must intervene to prevent mass atrocities. And that might help avert the next Rwanda or the next Darfur.

After the Vietnam War, many Americans were traumatized by the very idea of using military force. As a result we were too slow to react to genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, and hundreds of thousands died as a result. Then we recovered our moxie — and unfortunately barged into Iraq. The difficulties of Iraq and Afghanistan have again made many Americans — particularly on the left — allergic to any use of military force, even to save lives in a limited operation with very few civilian casualties, like the one in Libya.

I don’t think the United States should arm Libyan rebels, partly because that would require training them to use the weaponry, and we shouldn’t have military boots on the ground, for fear of a nationalist backlash among Libyans. But we can step up the bombing of Libyan military units (arguably necessary to protect civilians), making clear to those units that unless they stand down, they will be destroyed.

Critics complain, correctly, that we don’t have a clear exit strategy. But plans made in conference rooms rarely survive the first shot anyway. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 lasted 11 weeks, entailed civilian casualties and faced constant sniping from critics — until it abruptly succeeded and largely put an end to the slaughter there.

Gulf countries could leak word of a $15 million reward for the arrest of Colonel Qaddafi. That might empower his aides and bodyguards to get greedy. The mounting defections of aides like Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa suggest that even some members of the inner circle believe the tide has turned. They’re opportunists, and they apparently believe Mr. Qaddafi is going down.

The International Criminal Court is investigating Colonel Qaddafi, with an indictment possible as soon as next month. It would be a fine step toward ending global impunity for atrocities if a SWAT team of Libyans and coalition forces swooped down one day and seized Colonel Qaddafi to face trial in The Hague. It’s the kind of thing that no one can predict, but it’s an ending that would leave this Libyan incursion remembered not only for the lives it saved, but also as a milestone in the history of humanitarianism.

I’m delighted to announce the winners of my 2011 Win-a-Trip contest. The student winner is Saumya Dave of Atlanta, who has studied writing at Columbia University and medicine at Medical College of Georgia. The winner among those 60 and over is Noreen Connolly, a teacher in Newark, N.J. I’ll travel with them later this year to the developing world, and they’ll blog for and post videos as we go. Stay tuned.  

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

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