Few decisions are so fraught with consequences as that to intervene militarily in a foreign country. Even where such intervention is designed to preserve innocent life, it will inevitably be at the cost of other innocent life, especially where the intervening party is determined to avoid any casualties by relying exclusively on superior air power. The lives of Libyan civilians in Tripoli are not self-evidently of less value than those of civilians in rebel-held Benghazi.
The Obama administration has manifestly not thought out either the moral or prudential first principles behind the intervention in Libya. In the weeks leading up to the U.N. Security Council resolution to use all necessary means to protect civilians, the leading administration officials contradicted one another and often themselves on successive days about the imposition of a no-fly zone.
And even after the decision to intervene was made, there was no clarity on goals. Reuters quoted Secretary of State Clinton on Friday as insisting that any negotiations must end with a "decision by Colonel Gaddafi to leave." President Obama, however, emphasized, "We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal – specifically the protection of civilians in Libya." A White House spokesman captured the confusion, telling Ben Smith of Politico, "Gaddafi has lost his legitimacy to lead and must go. However the goals of this resolution do not require regime change."
The confusion within the Obama administration is mirrored by that among the intervening countries. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe explicitly ruled out "regime change" as a goal, while Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper opined that once Gaddafi is deprived of his overwhelming firepower advantage, he would lose his grip on the country, implying regime change is a goal.
Meanwhile, Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, whose endorsement of a no-fly zone provided a crucial justification for Western military intervention in another Muslim country, immediately developed cold feet about the whole operation with the first civilian casualties. Those casualties would escalate dramatically if Gaddafi embeds his troops in those cities currently under his control, and the U.N. forces attempt to dislodge him using only air power.
NO JEW CAN REMAIN INDIFFERENT to the humanitarian claims of innocent civilians. The bitter memory remains of the Allies' refusal to evacuate Jews fleeing Hitler, even when the means were readily available, or later to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz – both extensively documented by historian David Wyman in The Abandonment of the Jews.
But the fate of Jews at the hands of the Nazis remains a uniquely pure case calling out for humanitarian intervention. Jews did not threaten Germany in any way, except in Hitler's twisted mind. Most cases for humanitarian intervention arise in the context of centuries of mutual savagery. (Lack of the above purity does not invalidate humanitarian intervention to save large numbers of civilians; it just complicates matters.)
The majority Hutus who slaughtered over half a million Tutsis in Rwanda, for instance, were oppressed by minority Tutsis for more than a century. The current civil war in Libya is, inter alia, a war between long hostile desert tribes. Darfur, where the world has stood by helplessly as hundreds of thousands of black Muslims, were murdered by the Arab Muslim janjaweed, is as near a pure case for humanitarian intervention as exists today, and even in Darfur there were black Muslims who took up arms against the reigning Sudanese government.
Certainly, President Obama, who based his run for the Democratic nomination on his consistent opposition to the second Iraq war – a war his primary opponent Hilary Clinton initially supported -- needs to clarify his moral calipers. Saddam Hussein was far more murderous than Gaddafi. He gassed tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens, and murdered or tortured hundreds of thousand. An estimated 60,000-70,000 Iraqi children died a year of disease and malnutrition, while he siphoned off the proceeds of the U.N. food-for-oil program for his presidential palaces and internal security services.
TO THE CLAIM that Gaddafi has lost all legitimacy any number of questions arise. First, by what standards? True, he has no democratic legitimacy. He is an absolute dictator, who has treated his country's vast oil reserves as his personal property. But that has been true for over forty years. What changed now? Surely, the Lockerbie bombing of a civilian airliner was a far more traditional casus belli. Yet less than two years ago, the British, who are now part of the anti-Gaddafi coalition, cravenly pressured for the release of the Lockerbie mastermind, at the behest of British oil interests in Libya.
The second question concerning Gaddafi's legitimacy is: Compared to whom? To dozens of other of brutal dictators in the world, like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe or the rulers of North Korea, who have kept millions at near starvation to pursue nuclear weapons? Even more relevant: Compared to what in Libya? Little attention has been given to the nature of the Libyan opposition. But eastern Libya, where the opposition is strongest, is the leading recruiting ground per capita for Al Qaeda, and there is good reason to believe that Islamists are heavily represented among the opposition leaders.
Is the standard for Western intervention going to be: When a dictatorial regime is forced to mow down hundreds or thousands of opponents to retain power, the West will intervene? That is not a standard about which the U.S. has been terribly consistent. By not enforcing the no-fly zone against Saddam Hussein's battle helicopters in 1991, President George H.W. Bush allowed Saddam to viciously crush the Shiite uprising he had explicitly encouraged. I would be delighted if President Obama were to apply the above standard to Iran. But does anyone dream for a moment that he will, especially as he has tethered American military power to the Russian and Chinese vetoes in the U.N. Security Council.
At present, the Obama administration seems to be applying a democratic legitimacy test primarily to countries at least partially allied to American interests and where political unrest would inevitably bring the country closer to the Iranian orbit. Thus it has pressured the government of Yemen, which is helping fight Al Qaeda on the Arabian peninsula, and Bahrain, which hosts a crucial American naval base on the Straits of Hormuz, but said and done little about Syria and Iran. To date, little pressure has been exerted on the Saudi monarchy, but where would the Libyan precedent lead if Iran stirred a rebellion in Saudi Arabia's oil rich, Shiite provinces?
NO ASPECT OF THE ADMINISTRATION'S failure to enunciate a coherent theory of national interest or moral necessity for military intervention causes greater concern than its deliberate renunciation of American leadership in favor of "going along" with our European allies or the U.N. Security Council. The administration discussed the Libyan intervention solely with European countries and in the U.N., while ignoring the United States Congress, to which the American constitution grants the sole authority to declare war.
Viewing American power as more often malign than benign, Obama has deliberately submitted the American Gulliver to having its hands tied. By elevating the U.N. Security Council to the role of sole grantor of legitimacy to military action, the president has weakened America's ability to defend its vital security interests, and subjected those interests to the veto of Russia and China, two nations whose interests are, to put it mildly, not always congruent with those of the United States.
From Israel's point of view, there is something truly frightening about the United States' eagerness to go along with the U.N. determination of the demands of "international humanitarian law" or the "duty to protect civilians." Within the administration, one of the strongest proponents of intervention in Libya was Samantha Powers, who had to be dropped from the Obama's foreign policy advisory board during the 2008 campaign, due to her earlier calls for the stationing of a "mammoth force" to protect Palestinians from Israel in the West Bank. She quickly resurfaced, however, as a senior figure on the National Security Council, dealing with multilateral organizations. Another advocate was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who last month expressed her full agreement with a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity, before casting a reluctant veto.
It does not take a particularly fervid imagination to imagine a Security Council Resolution based on the duty to protect Palestinian "civilians" in Gaza or the West Bank from overwhelming Israeli military superiority, with the United States going along, if not militarily, at least by not vetoing the resolution. The dilution of American sovereignty in the Libyan intervention, and the substitution of a hostile U.N. for the U.S. Congress as the arbiter of legitimate employment of American forces, constitutes a grave threat to Israel