Sunday, April 3, 2011

Obama's Dilemma in Libya

di·lem·ma [di lémmə]n

1. situation with unsatisfactory choices: a situation in which somebody must choose one of two or more unsatisfactory alternatives
Suppose it was you sitting in the Oval Office and had to quickly decide whether or not to intervene in Libya to prevent the imminent slaughter of thousands, what would you have done?

It seems like a pretty easy decision. Prevent the slaughter of thousands or stand by while it happens. But of course this “easy” decision to prevent the slaughter is laced with maddening complexity. Last weekend as part of a roundtable on Meet the Press, Ted Koppel did an eloquent summary of the reasons why this decision may be just as unsatisfactory as the alternative.

The question hasn't yet been answered as to why it is that Libya, of all countries in that region, has won the humanitarian defense sweepstakes of 2011. We have seen many countries, both in that region and throughout the world, where civilian loss and civilian suffering has been much, much greater. Congo for the past 12 years, we've lost about five million people. Sudan, three million people, never any talk of military intervention. Take a look at what's going on in the Ivory Coast today. Secretary Clinton was talking about the number of refugees that might have come out of a Gadhafi attack on Benghazi. You've got 700,000 refugees in the Ivory Coast right now--close to a million, in fact. Why, why Libya? Hasn't been answered.

[Then there is] Syria. Remember that the current president's father, back in 1982, when he had a little rebellion on his hands in the city of Hama...wiped them out…Eighty thousand people were killed in Hama. What do we know about the rebels in Libya? One of the few things we know about them is that there was from that region of Libya a disproportionately high number of young men who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq. Are these the folks that we want to associate ourselves with? We know for a fact that Gadhafi is a bad guy, but we know very little about the people who seek to replace him.

We don’t seem to mind military operations for humanitarian purposes – as long as we don’t have to deal with seeing casualties on TV.

I just wanted to invoke the law of unintended consequences…Remember Somalia. There was never a more humanitarian mission than when President George H.W. Bush, the elder Bush, when he ordered U.S. troops into Somalia to avoid the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people. Ultimately, that led to a dead Ranger being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. We pulled out of Somalia just in panic; and a few weeks later, when Rwanda happened, the United States was so shell-shocked that it was unable to do anything and 800,000 people died.

This doesn’t include a host of other questions about, for example, what happens if the operation is unable take Qaddafi out without US ground troops which the president has promised not to send. And make no mistake, if Qaddafi is still left in power, he will still be able to carry out his threat of genocide as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

And then there is the question about whether President Obama should have first obtained permission from Congress to start this military action against Libya. While this would have been desirable, how practical was it under the circumstances? The president did consult with leaders in Congress. And US Senate Resolution 85 which urged the UN Security Council to take further action against Libya including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone, was passed by unanimous consent on March 1. But time was very much of the essence to prevent Qaddafi’s troops from reaching Benghazi and carrying out his threat to start killing his citizens. What if Congress were to get deadlocked on this decision like they have on so many previous occasions? If you were President Obama, would you want to take the chance of that happening?

Despite all of the windbagging about allowing Congress to vote on this, I’m sure that many are privately relieved that they don’t have to go on record as to how they would have voted. For now, they have the luxury of waiting and seeing how it all turns out and then taking whatever position in hindsight makes them look best.

But President Obama had no such luxury. He had to make the choice of either agreeing to intervene in Libya for humanitarian reasaons and take all of the criticism and second guessing that goes with it if things had turned out bad. Or he could have decided to stay out of it all and endure the worldwide condemnation if Qaddafi had been able to carry out the slaughter of his people. That is indeed a dilemma!

Nobody knows how this will all turn out. But it’s hard to imagine any thoughtful and reasonable person not trying to prevent a massive loss of life when an opportunity like this, especially when a coalition of others is asking for your help. I think that under the extremely difficult circumstances, the president made the best choice possible.

Nicholas Kristof in his NYT op-ed Is It Better to Save No One? sums it up this way.

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?

1 comment:

carolyn said...

Tony, did anyone mention that we have been supporting Quadafi for years?

I am sick about this latest war. I don't doubt our bombs are killing civilians, just as we did in Iraw. How humanitarian is this? I think no good can come of this situation for our interests. We cannot afford another war and our nation is getting dragged down by these interferences. Look at what just happened in Afghanistan. The city where the UN people were slaughtered (beheaded), was thought to be the most amenable to democratization. Do we think we can change these people? What would I do? You will be surprised. After long thought, I decided it would be best not to intervene, but to let France and others handle it, if they were willing. If not, well, we have not changed much since the Middle Ages.