Libya Is a Problem from Hell

Why isn't Obama listening to Samantha Power's advice when it comes to intervention in Libya?


As Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces advance toward Benghazi, Barack Obama’s administration continues to dither in its response to Libya’s crisis. Although the U.S. president insists that all options are on the table, his administration has failed to outline a plan that could conceivably help the Libyan rebels oust Qaddafi and end the bloodshed. The weak American response pales in comparison with countries such as France — which has recognized Libya’s revolutionary council as the country’s legitimate government and has contemplated airstrikes — and even the Arab League, which endorsed a no-fly zone over the weekend.

Meanwhile, some in the foreign-policy establishment have marshaled a number of arguments for U.S. inaction. Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass argued in the Wall Street Journal, for example, that U.S. interests in Libya were "less than vital" and made the case that a no-fly zone would be ineffective at halting Qaddafi’s forces. Writing in the Washington Post, retired Gen. Wesley Clark stated that "violence in Libya is not significant in comparison" with recent civil wars in Africa and fighting in Darfur, and that there is "no clear basis for action." And early in the conflict, when reports of regime violence against civilians were at their peak, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen claimed, "We’ve … not been able to confirm that any of the Libyan aircraft have fired on their own people."

These arguments are not new. They have been brought forth time and again when the United States and the international community debated whether to intervene in order to halt state-sponsored attacks on civilians. What’s more, one of the most eloquent rebuttals to these recurring claims for nonintervention was penned by none other than an official currently serving in the Obama administration. Senior National Security Council official Samantha Power, in her 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell, identified several reasons behind the United States’ repeated failure to prevent genocide.

The first reason for U.S. inaction to prevent the mass killing of civilians is supposed lack of knowledge. In many cases, Power notes:

The most common response is, "We didn’t know." This is not true. To be sure, the information emanating from countries victimized by genocide was imperfect. Embassy personnel were withdrawn, intelligence assets on the ground were scarce, editors were typically reluctant to assign their reporters to places where neither U.S. interests nor American readers were engaged, and journalists who attempted to report the atrocities were limited in their mobility. As a result, refugee claims were difficult to confirm and body counts notoriously hard to establish. Because genocide is usually veiled under the cover of war, some U.S. officials at first had genuine difficulty distinguishing deliberate atrocities against civilians from conventional conflict.

Despite these difficulties, it is clear that the violence being deployed by the Libyan regime is indiscriminate and not solely directed at the poorly armed rebels. Qaddafi expressed his intention early in the conflict to "cleanse Libya house by house," and as government forces attempt to retake towns controlled by the rebels, reports of shelling of civilian areas and firing on civilian and humanitarian vehicles have increased. Refugees fleeing the initial outbreak of violence described a brutal scene of bodies hanging from electricity poles and militia trucks loaded with the dead.

As Power wrote about previous U.S. responses to genocide, "U.S. officials who ‘did not know’ or ‘did not fully appreciate’ chose not to." It might be convenient to avert our eyes or write off such reports as exaggerated opposition claims, but there are enough examples of such accounts that the human toll in Libya is undeniable.

Skeptics of intervention also argue that the United States cannot have much of an impact without a sizable U.S. military commitment — a commitment that is then dismissed as imprudent.

U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder raised this point last week, saying, "Even if [a no-fly zone] were to be established, [it] isn’t really going to impact what is happening there today." Haass also made this case in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, claiming that if a no-fly zone is not enough, the United States would then need military personnel on the ground, which would be a drastic and unwise escalation of U.S. involvement. Similarly, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told lawmakers that the implementation of a no-fly zone "begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses," essentially an act of war.

It is not clear that the Pentagon’s qualms about a no-fly zone are drawn from a serious assessment of the resource requirements or just a general lack of interest in intervening in Libya. The fact that European allies such as Britain and France, whose militaries lack the size and advanced capabilities of the U.S. armed forces, have seemed much more willing to intervene seems to indicate that it is the Pentagon’s traditional noninterventionist tendencies — rather than resources — that lie behind its reluctance to get involved.

Gates’s unwillingness to lead on this point is a troubling sign about a possible re-emergence in the Pentagon of the so-called Powell doctrine, which held that any involvement required overwhelming force, needed broad international support, and a clear exit strategy.

When Colin Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed this approach in an effort to forestall intervention in Bosnia by Bill Clinton’s administration, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously asked Powell, "What are you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?" Similarly, reluctance at the Pentagon was one of the primary reasons that George W. Bush’s administration did not intervene militarily in response to the genocide in Darfur. The Obama White House appears to be the latest victim of this time-tested Pentagon tactic.

This goes to Power’s most important lesson from her survey of the U.S. response to genocide: It all comes down to will. "The real reason the United States did not do what it could and should have done to stop genocide was not a lack of knowledge or influence but a lack of will," she wrote. "Simply put, American leaders did not act because they did not want to. They believed that genocide was wrong, but they were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital needed to stop it."

If American policymakers want to make a difference, they can. But hope for a quick and bloodless resolution to the Libya conflict is no substitute for a realistic appraisal of the stakes of this crisis. As Qaddafi’s forces regain the initiative, the humanitarian costs of inaction grow.

Power is not the only Obama administration official to make the case for U.S. humanitarian intervention. The late Richard Holbrooke, writing in To End a War, his account of the peace talks that ended the Bosnian conflict, presciently warned:

There will be other Bosnias in our lives — areas where early outside involvement can be decisive, and American leadership will be required. The world’s richest nation, one that presumes to great moral authority, cannot simply make worthy appeals to conscience and call on others to carry the burden. The world will look to Washington for more than rhetoric the next time we face a challenge to peace.

However, the Libyan people and the world are getting exactly what Holbrooke feared — rhetoric about the need for Qaddafi to leave and mixed signals about U.S. resolve in guaranteeing that this happens.

Beyond the moral cost to U.S. foreign policy, a victory by Qaddafi will send a stark message to other autocrats in the Middle East and around the world. The people of Tunisia and Egypt freed themselves from repressive rulers with minimal violence and loss of life. If Qaddafi manages to cling to power through widespread violence and military force, this so-called "Arab Spring" may become very bloody indeed.

It is not too late. Obama should listen to those inside his administration and in the international community who believe that the United States should act to prevent further bloodshed. If he does not, Libya will become the latest in a long list of cases in which the United States, once again, ends up on the wrong side of history.

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