Humanitarian interventionists without a cause: that’s what they were until they found the fires of hell in Libya. Iraq, the old humanitarian banner, was worn out, Afghanistan never quite caught on, and somehow today’s humanitarians never flew into rages over the moral horrors in the Sudan and Ivory Coast. But Libya and its outcast monster, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, who threatened to “massacre” Libyan rebels—that was red meat. America’s politicians and journalists could not resist either, especially when left and right united in its pursuit—President Obama's fiery aide Samantha Power and neoconservative defense expert Paul Wolfowitz, and star-crossed Senators John Kerry and John McCain.
And it looked so easy, didn’t it? A little antiseptic no-fly zone, and bye-bye colonel. But while all hoped for Gaddafi’s early departure, the price already has been very dear. Libya devoured leadership oxygen from what truly mattered: the upheavals in the rest of the Mideast (where, unlike in Libya, the United States has truly vital interests), and America itself, where future generations perish slowly in neglected public schools that offer no hope, where working Americans are thrown from their unaffordable homes into the streets, and where millions of Americans will never have jobs. Already, more than half a billion dollars they deserved for their survival has gone to Libya instead.
Frankly, I don’t feel my position is at all inhumane. From the outset, I favored Washington urging our Arab and European friends to take the military action they deemed necessary and to take it immediately, with the United States in a supporting role. They are Libya’s neighbors, and they each and all had the military capacity to start no-fly operations. But they, like our own humanitarian interventionists, insisted both that action be taken ASAP and that only America could lead the way. It went unmentioned, for example, that the Egyptian, French, Italian, and British air forces, which were right there geographically, were much superior to Gaddafi’s and could have done most of the job themselves. A bunch of con men, they all cried that they didn’t have enough military punch. They had enough, despite the fact that almost all of our European allies have slashed their military spending over the last decade, deeply and cynically, in the full and correct expectation that Washington would more than fully make up the difference.
I don’t question the sincerity of the humanitarian interventionists’ motives. I question their moral superiority, their priorities, and their carelessness about facts.
But leave aside the cynical salesmanship of our Arab and European friends and their abject failure to maintain and use their full military capabilities. And set aside the opportunistic humanitarianism of America’s left and right. Let them think they won the argument about intervening in Libya but not elsewhere, with the moral ditty: “Because you can’t save all lives, doesn’t mean you don’t try to save some lives.” May we all meet the proponents of this convenient morality in heaven. (They know we could have done more in Sudan and Ivory Coast than we did.)
What troubles me in the first instance is that the rest of us become mummified by their arguments. And they made whatever arguments necessary to win the debate. If you said that the task in Libya would be too long and hard, they said not at all. Just a little no-fly zone. Then, they said, just shoot Gaddafi’s tanks on the ground. Just give the rebels arms. Just train them. And the best and most recent of all—Gaddafi’s allies will abandon him and his regime will soon collapse. (Let’s hope.) All those tribes that used to support Gaddafi? They’ve deserted him, too; besides, tribes don’t mean anything anymore. And the rebels are all professors and lawyers who love democracy (with which, of course, they’ve had enormous experience). Or if you made the mistake of saying the Libyan task should not be so difficult, they jumped on that, too. They said the people will need major help on a continuing basis, maybe including peace-keepers on the ground and certainly aid groups to help the impoverished rebels. (Whatever happened to the $32 billion of Gaddafi’s funds that President Obama impounded?)
Let me be clear: I don’t question the sincerity of the humanitarian interventionists’ motives. I question their moral superiority, their priorities, and their carelessness about facts.
The humanitarian interventionists think their worries trump everyone else’s. They think their morality excuses their willful ignorance and carelessness—their unwillingness to address tough questions about what we know and don’t know in Libya. They say that if the U.S. doesn’t get rid of Col. Gaddafi, it would represent the death of America’s core values and beliefs. I think American values will survive. I think we are doing enough now in a supporting role. I believe we are facing but not addressing first-order problems in the Mideast and at home. To me, both Americans and Libyans will survive Col. Gaddafi, but Americans will not survive a failure of their leaders to devote top priority, attention, and resources to Mideastern turmoil and to America.
Inevitably, the Obama team has been spending far less time than it should on the Mideast as a whole and far too much time on Libya. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the keys to peace in the region and, in Riyadh’s case, central to the flow of critical oil. Muslim extremists are moving to gain control in Egypt. Washington has to help the secular army and the street democrats do what they deem wise to prevent the religious radicalization of their country. Of equal importance, Washington has much to do to restore good relations with Saudi Arabia, given King Abdullah’s perception that Obama helped push longtime ally Mubarak overboard. The king isn’t going to democratize his country, whatever the humanitarians say, and Obama should leave matters alone there for the time being. More or less the same applies to the states of the Arabian Peninsula such as Kuwait, the U.A.E, and Qatar. They’re quiet and likely to remain so for different reasons. But Bahrain needs tending and Saudi opposition to democratization there needs to be softened. Wherever possible, the theme of U.S. policy should be to help guide Mideast governments toward the building of democratic institutions like a free press and a legal system, plus local elections. These changes, however, cannot be accomplished with a moral thunderclap.
As for Syria, that is a particular hornet’s nest. President Assad is a weak dictator, and the Sunnis challenging him could be better or worse. New leaders must be found in Yemen—a country critical to anti-terrorist operations—who will be acceptable to Yemeni moderates and not open the door further to al Qaeda. Top U.S. officials have to pay attention to these matters and not let Libya swallow them up. Humanitarians have to accept the reality that the leaders of Arab lands are going to tend to their own interests as they see them, whatever happens in Libya. In no sense is Libya a moral or strategic domino.
I'm for carefully planned humanitarian intervention abroad with America in a supporting role, and with other nations shouldering their long-forgotten responsibilities on this front. I’m for helping Arab states develop the institutions necessary for democracy rather than simply hoping the street democrats gain power and run governments democratically. Apparently, many of those committed to saving the world are not fully consumed by the plight of Americans and about the prospect of serious American decline economically and militarily. And so, above all, my passion is for humanitarian intervention in America.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.