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We Intervene

A speech and a commentary.

After only a few days of allied military action, the Libyan nightmare has been averted, and the rebels are now marching westward again. Like the invincible Serbian juggernaut of yore, the power of Muammar Qaddafi, which frightened Secretary Gates, has been shaken. President Obama has done an admirable thing. On March 18, he gave a speech explaining his decision. The speech was both ringing and baffling: as the poet said, I wish he would explain his explanation. What follows is a commentary on some of the president’s statements. His words are in italics.

In the face of this injustice, the United States and the international community moved swiftly.

By Bosnian standards, this is swift. By Rwandan standards, anything is swift. By Libyan standards, this is in the nick of time. The non-military actions that the Obama administration took did not impede Qaddafi’s campaign against his people, and the military action that we have taken came as Qaddafi’s campaign had reached the gates of Benghazi—even breached them. The battle of Benghazi had already begun; and it would have been not a battle, but a massacre. For the citizens of Benghazi, and for the leadership of the Libyan opposition, which is based there, this is rescue, pure and simple. Operation Odyssey Dawn was launched a little over a month after the Libyan revolution, and Qaddafi’s war on it, began. For some purposes, four weeks is a short time; for other purposes, it is an eternity. The question of our alacrity is significant, because there are dire circumstances—moral emergencies—in which the traditional sequence of diplomatic, economic, and military responses, the gradualism of ordinary foreign policy, must be abridged, if the means are to match the ends. In such situations, rapid deployment is the most effective deployment.

Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Qaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners.

The president is exactly right. His decision to use force to prevent all those horrors is justified. The situation was even worse, and more urgent, than he allowed: left unchecked, Qaddafi already had committed atrocities against his people. But why do some atrocities have a claim on our conscience and our resources, and others do not? No sooner had Obama explained his decision to use force to rescue the Libyan rebels than the progressive bloggers went to work. This was Ezra Klein’s gloss on Obama’s sentences: “Every year, one million people die from malaria. About three million children die, either directly or indirectly, due to hunger. There is much we could do to help the world if we were willing. The question that needs to be asked is: Why this?” And Andrew Sullivan cleverly objected, about Obama’s view that “the U.S. cannot stand idly by while atrocities take place,” that “we have done nothing in Burma or the Congo and are actively supporting governments in Yemen and Bahrain that are doing almost exactly—if less noisily—what Qaddafi is doing.”

These are debater’s points made by people who have no reason to fear that they will ever need to be rescued. It is important that this “logic” be exposed for what it really is, because it sounds so plausible. Is it hypocritical of the United States to act against Qaddafi and not against Al Khalifa? It is. But there are worse things in this suffering world than hypocrisy. Are we inconsistent? We are. But should we abandon people to slaughter, should we consign freedom fighters to their doom, for the satisfaction of consistency? Simone Weil once remarked that as long as France retained its colonial possessions it was morally disqualified from the struggle against Hitler. It was a breathtakingly consistent and stupid remark. We should be candid. All outrage is selective. Nobody cares about everything equally. Nobody can save everybody, and everybody will not be saved. If everybody who deserves rescue will not be rescued, should nobody who deserves rescue be rescued? If we cannot do everything, must we do nothing? The history of help and rescue is a history of triage. There are also philosophical and moral and political preferences that determine the selectivity of our actions, and those preferences must be provided with valid reasons. Maybe we should be intervening in Burma or Bahrain: let the arguments be made, the principles and the interests adduced. But of course it is not the expansion of American action that interests these writers. What they seek is its contraction. Klein’s point is especially lousy. Did our inaction in Rwanda reduce the frequency of malaria in Africa? Blogging is a notoriously time-consuming vocation. Surely there is a kitchen for the homeless where Klein lives. If he were to tear himself away from his laptop, he would not solve the hunger problem, but it would help.

Yesterday, in response to a call for action by the Libyan people and the Arab League, the U.N. Security Council passed a strong resolution that demands an end to the violence against citizens. It authorizes the use of force with an explicit commitment to pursue all necessary measures to stop the killing. … And we are not going to use force beyond a well-defined goalspecifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.

Obama’s characterization of Resolution 1973 recapitulates its strongest and its weakest features. The resolution’s description of the means to be employed is remarkable: it calls for “all necessary measures,” which goes well beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone and covers the air strikes against Qaddafi’s advancing forces, air-defense systems, and command-and-control capabilities that we have been witnessing—and that are transforming the fight for the democratization of Libya into a fair fight. Moreover, “all necessary measures” are to be taken “notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970,” an obscure reference that does nothing less than repeal the arms embargo to Libya that the Security Council established at the end of February. It excludes only “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” This is a powerful warrant for the use of force against Qaddafi.

But the resolution grants this warrant, as the president indicated, “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi.” The ends are humanitarian, not political. I have no objection to the immediate objective of relief, of course; but I wonder about what comes next. The problem, after all, is political: a popular democratic revolt was savagely attacked by a tyrant and his mercenaries and some of his army. If Qaddafi now desists, will we desist, too? Will our intervention result in the de facto partition of Libya? Will Benghazi become a free city—or worse, a “safe haven” —that will require our indefinite protection? Will Qaddafi be granted western Libya and his capital? If he survives, he wins. So what was Obama thinking when he added that “Qaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misrata, and Zawiya, and establish water, electricity, and gas supplies to all areas”? We have sent our planes and our submarines into action only for that?

If we had acted a few weeks ago, when the Libyan rebels were five hundred miles to the west, a political outcome would have been more likely. But this concrete perplexity broaches a more general consideration. There are cases—and they must be scrupulously pondered—in which it may be a mistake to dissociate the humanitarian from the political, because the atrocities that occasion the humanitarian response are political in origin, and only a political change will eliminate their cause. For this reason, I am heartened by the implication of that esoteric reference to Resolution 1970, because it may support the transfer of arms to the Libyan rebels. As long as Qaddafi stays in power, the national and regional danger remains in place, and worsens.  

In the coming weeks, we will continue to help the Libyan people with humanitarian and economic assistance so that they can fulfill their aspirations peacefully.

This is bizarre. Peacefully? The Libyan people are in the midst of an armed revolt against a dictator who is in the midst of an armed campaign to crush them. There is a war in Libya. It erupted because the Libyan people finally despaired of fulfilling their aspirations peacefully. When they tried to do so, they were murdered. So they fought back. The president may not wish to be embroiled in an internecine Libyan conflict, but there he is. He should console himself that it is not a civil war, but it is a war nonetheless.

I detect in Obama’s sentence the enchantment of Tahrir Square, so a few cautionary words about what is and is not to be inferred from the revolution in Cairo are in order. What happened in Tahrir Square was extraordinary. Many hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated for many weeks against a despised regime and killed nobody. The army surrounded the demonstrators with tanks and killed nobody. (The secret police and Mubarak’s thugs did the dirty work.) Tahrir Square was a miracle—but a miracle is not a model. There will be instances—they have already occurred—when democratic protestors may resort to violence, to defend themselves or to overthrow the tyrant. Democracy does not entail pacifism. “From the beginning of these protests,” Obama continued, “we have made it clear that we are opposed to violence.” All violence? In Libya the dissidents did not begin with violence, but they took up arms in a just cause. It should not be hard for us, the children of Lexington and Concord, to understand them. And so I am puzzled by Obama’s “peacefully.” Perhaps he believes that Qaddafi will do the rational thing and leave for Caracas. If he wishes to demonstrate that he has no illusions about the rationality, and the political acceptability, of Qaddafi, whom not long ago he declared “must go,” he should recognize the provisional Libyan government, as some of our allies have done.

In this effort, the United States is prepared to act as part of an international coalition. American leadership is essential, but that does not mean acting aloneit means shaping the conditions for the international community to act together. … And this is precisely how the international community should work.

This is the experiment behind Obama’s military action, his proposed innovation in the methods and grounds of intervention. He will do it, but in a new way. The “American leadership” that is “essential” is not like, say, the American leadership of George H.W. Bush in the war for the liberation of Kuwait, which was a multilateral effort organized unilaterally, you might say, by the United States. Obama dislikes such a degree of American primacy—the perception of it, the reality of it. This dislike amounts to a historical and strategic re-orientation In Paris, Hillary Clinton articulated the re-orientation bluntly: “We did not lead this. We did not engage in unilateral actions in any way, but we strongly support the international community taking action against governments and leaders who behave as Qaddafi is unfortunately doing.”

As a practical matter, a bit of post-Iraq cunning, this makes some sense. It is useful, I suppose, that the Arab League has thrown its otherwise dubious authority behind this effort, and that “the red, green, and black of Arab flags be prominent in the military operations,” as a senior official told The New York Times, even though so far only Qatar among the Arab states is participating in the mission and its flag is not especially visible. But how useful, really? Who, really, is fooled? The campaign did not begin until the American president was persuaded that it should begin. The missiles that destroyed Qaddafi’s capabilities were American missiles. The United States will turn over command of the operation to a European ally, but not until the American military does what the American military does best. So the conduct of Operation Odyssey Dawn affirms the American centrality that American officials wish to deny. (This centrality, incidentally, is not inconsistent with Resolution 1973, which does not authorize a coalition. It “authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures…” It asks only that the individual states “inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take.” Can it be that the United Nations was less anxious about American initiative than the American president?)

The organization of Operation Odyssey Dawn represents Obama’s ambivalence about the global preeminence of the United States. So do its origins: David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy concluded that an atrocity must be militarily prevented before Barack Obama did. Or at least they said so publicly; but the public pronouncements of presidents, particularly in open societies, are necessary to prepare public opinion for a discussion of the proposed course of action. Reticence about first principles and bold actions is not a presidential virtue. “Sarkozy! Sarkozy!” the rebels in Benghazi are now shouting. I would have preferred to hear “Obama! Obama!” I have no doubt that they would have gratefully cried out the president’s name, even though we are in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the time Obama is finished with his serial opacities and last-minute adjustments about the democratic struggle in the Middle East, he will have forfeited the trust of both its regimes and its peoples.

“We did not lead this”: what sort of boast is that? According to Resolution 1973, Qaddafi has committed “gross and systematic violation of human rights, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, and summary executions” and “systematic attacks … against the civilian population [that] may amount to crimes against humanity.” We should have led this. I respect the deliberateness with which Obama considers sending American soldiers into battle: the Constitution gives the commander-in-chief the lonely power of life and death. But this same power makes the American president uniquely able to do—pardon my ideological naivete—good in the world. He can rescue, and save, and support, and protect. And he can know this prior to any crisis; this can be pre-deliberated. What matters is his prior conception of the American presidency and of American power. A reluctance to put American troops in harm’s way must not be confused with a reluctance to recognize, or to accept, that the thwarting of a crime against humanity is not one of the burdens of the office, but one of its glories. There is no historical shame, no historical cost, in delivering a city of 750,000 people, and a democratic revolt, from the brutal designs of a lunatic tyrant, and in being seen to be doing so. There is only honor.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.