Here is one lesson we can draw from the mostly negative media commentary about the Obama administration’s actions in Libya: Presidents get more credit for stopping atrocities after they begin than for preventing them before they get out of hand.
The U.S.-led NATO intervention that stopped mass killing in Bosnia in 1995, for example, came only after 200,000 people had already been killed. But because we had witnessed massacre after massacre after massacre over three years of fighting in Bosnia, the difference NATO made when it ended the carnage was palpable, and Bill Clinton’s achievement in mobilizing the intervention and then negotiating a peace accord was broadly recognized.
Four years later, NATO acted more quickly to stop atrocities in Kosovo, but still not fast enough to prevent Serbian troops from driving nearly a million Kosovar civilians from their homes. When NATO’s military intervention eventually allowed those people to return to their homes, most deemed it a success. We had seen horrifying crimes unfold before our eyes, and then those crimes ceased; again we could see and feel the difference Clinton and NATO had made.
In Libya, many people (we don’t yet know how many) were arrested, forcibly disappeared and possibly executed as the Qaddafi government consolidated its control over Tripoli and rebel-held enclaves, like Zawiyah, in the country’s west. But the Obama administration and its international allies did act soon enough to prevent the much larger-scale atrocities that would likely have followed Qaddafi’s reconquest of eastern Libya and especially the city of Benghazi. Indeed, though this intervention must have felt painfully slow to the people of Benghazi as Qaddafi’s army bore down upon them, it was, by any objective standard, the most rapid multinational military response to an impending human rights crisis in history, with broader international support than any of the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s.
But precisely because the international community acted in time—before Qaddafi retook Benghazi—we never saw what might have happened had they not acted. Today in eastern Libya, there are no columns of refugees marching home to reclaim their lives; no mass graves testifying to the gravity of the crisis; no moment that symbolizes a passing from horror to hope. The sacking of Benghazi was the proverbial dog that didn’t bark. And so, just days into the military operation, commentators have moved on to a new set of questions—some serious (Is the mission to protect civilians or to remove Qaddafi? Will NATO be stuck patrolling a divided country?), and some trivial (Should Obama have gone to Brazil when the bombing started? Did the interventionist “girls” in his administration out-argue the cautious boys?)
But before the debate moves on, as it must, we should acknowledge what could be happening in eastern Libya right now had Qaddafi’s forces continued their march. The dozens of burned out tanks, rocket launchers, and missiles bombed at the eleventh hour on the road to Benghazi would have devastated the rebel stronghold if Qaddafi’s forces had been able to unleash them indiscriminately, as they did in other, smaller rebel-held towns, like Zawiyah, Misrata, and Adjabiya. Qaddafi’s long track-record of arresting, torturing, disappearing, and killing his political opponents to maintain control suggests that had he recaptured the east, a similar fate would have awaited those who supported the opposition there. Over a hundred thousand Libyans already fled to Egypt fearing Qaddafi’s assault; hundreds of thousands more could have followed if the east had fallen. The remaining population, and those living in refugee camps abroad, would have felt betrayed by the West, which groups like Al Qaeda would undoubtedly have tried to exploit. Finally, Qaddafi’s victory—alongside Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s fall—would have signaled to other authoritarian governments from Syria to Saudi Arabia to China that if you negotiate with protesters you lose, but if you kill them you win.
And the United States would still have been embroiled in Libya—enforcing sanctions, evacuating opposition supporters, assisting refugees, dealing with an unpredictable and angry Qaddafi. But it would have been embroiled in a tragedy rather than a situation that now has a chance to end well.
Of course, even if Benghazi is now safe from Qaddafi’s tanks, his thugs still have free rein to shoot demonstrators in Tripoli and other cities he controls. For the moment, Libya is indeed divided in two. But just a week ago, it looked likely to be reunified under a vengeful despot with a long record of violent abuse. Now at least a large part of the country has escaped that fate. As for the rest, we should not underestimate the non-military measures that the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations have implemented even without a dangerous armed assault on Tripoli. After all, the men around Qaddafi, who may well decide his fate, now know something that they didn’t just a couple of weeks ago: that their leader will never again be able to sell a drop of Libya’s oil, or to retake the parts of Libya he has lost.
It is legitimate to challenge the Obama administration about its objectives and how it plans to achieve them. It’s reasonable to be concerned about the impact the air war will have on civilians if it continues indefinitely. We do not know what will happen next in Libya, or where this all will lead—we never do. But we do know what has likely been averted. And for that we should be grateful.
Tom Malinowski is the Washington director of Human Rights Watch.