The Horrible Libya Hypocrisies

Obama and his allies were stampeded into imposing a no-fly zone against Libya—despite their lack of strategic interest there. Leslie H. Gelb on how the critics abuse historical analogies.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo; Luca Bruno / AP Photo

Neocons and liberal interventionists stampeded Obama into imposing a no-fly zone against Libya—despite the absence of vital U.S. interests there. Leslie H. Gelb on the hypocrisy among world leaders and how the experts abuse historical analogies.

There's nothing like a foreign-policy crisis, real or imagined, to ignite the worst among world leaders and foreign-policy experts. Out pop the nuclear weapons of the trade: phony analogies and unabashed hypocrisy. The manufactured crisis in Libya is a prime case in point. No foreign states have vital interests at stake in Libya. Events in this rather odd and isolated land have little bearing on the rest of the tumultuous Mideast region. Also not to be dismissed, there are far, far worse humanitarian horrors elsewhere. Yet, U.S. neoconservatives and liberal humanitarian interventionists have trapped another U.S. president into acting as if the opposite were true.

Once this terrible duo starts tossing out words like "slaughter" and "genocide," the media goes crazy. Then, the chorus begins to sing of heartless inaction by the U.S. president, blaming him for the deaths. White House common sense crumbles into insanity. The reason why neither President Obama nor his coalition partners in Britain and France can state a coherent goal for Libya is that none of them have any central interest in the outcome there. It is only when a nation has a clear vital interest that it can state a clear objective for war. They've all simply been carried away by their own rhetoric.

The drama usually starts when leaders and thinkers are seduced by the feeling they must do good. Sometimes, they essentially ignore the killings, even as deaths climb into the hundreds of thousands, as in Rwanda and millions as in Congo. Other times, the deaths number in the hundreds or so, as in Libya—and the guy doing the killing is someone they have good reason to dislike, and so they want to do good and stop him. It was just so with the irresistible trio of Senators—John McCain, John Kerry, and Lindsey Graham—and with their counterparts in foreign-policy land.

The kneejerk reaction among interventionists is to see the blood and insist that the United States act right away. There's no time to deliberate, they say. Don't find out about who the rebels are. Don't worry about who else will help. Just do it! In the case of Libya, the call to action took flight as a "no-fly zone." They spoke of it like a pill that could cure cancer. At the time they first proposed it, the rebels in fact were winning the war and Col. Muammar Gaddafi had just begun to retaliate with planes and tanks. There was yet no endorsement to counter him from the Arab League or from the U.N. Security Council, but the interventionists screamed for action anyway. Imagine what the reaction would have been had Western bombs and missiles fell upon Libya without that prior approval.

No one should have deluded himself into believing that chasing Gaddafi's planes from the air would, by itself, save civilians on the ground. Saving those lives always depended mainly on hitting Gaddafi's ground forces—his tanks, artillery, and combat troops. Thus, imposing only a no-fly zone would have been largely symbolic. When it failed to stop Gaddafi's onslaught, voices would have been raised for escalation, for hitting ground targets—precisely as has happened in the last few days. If the goal was to stop Gaddafi from killing his own people, there never was an alternative to impairing or destroying his ground force capability.

The reason why neither President Obama nor his coalition partners in Britain and France can state a coherent goal for Libya is that none of them have any central interest in the outcome there.

Daniel Stone: Is the Libya War Legal?Josh Dzieza: Why Is This Called Operation Odyssey Dawn?Full coverage of LibyaBut it becomes increasingly difficult to nail down reality, especially when slogans like "no-fly zones" and "act now" are ennobled by reference to Shakespeare. For example, interventionists whose memories of the Bard have frayed might be tempted to compare themselves to Macbeth, a man of action, and portray Obama as Hamlet, a man of self-doubt and delay. Remember Macbeth's line about killing the king: "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well/ It were done quickly." So, Macbeth grabbed his dagger and killed the king right off. And boy did his quick action produce great results: The kingdom was shaken to its roots, his wife went crazy with guilt, and predictably, he was killed by a more rightful heir to the throne. And just as Macbeth's formidable decision-making process receives perennial praise, so does Hamlet get trashed for his supposed indecision and hesitation. Forget the fact that Hamlet's famous indecision was about killing himself ("To be, or not to be"), and not about whether he would seek vengeance on the king who had killed Hamlet's father and married his mother. But to today's foreign-policy experts, Hamlet committed an unforgivable sin: He waited for evidence that the new king had actually killed his father. Thus, he concocted the idea of a play within a play to draw out the new king's guilt. In other words, he violated the first principle of modern American foreign-policymaking: He sought hard evidence.

Historical analogies do as much damage to policymaking. Thus, inevitably, erupts the game the current crisis resembles. Foreign-policy experts rush to compare Libya to Bosnia, the Punic Wars, Iraq, Kosovo, Thermopylae, and so forth. Take, for example, the difficulties of imposing a no-fly zone in Libya as opposed to Iraq or Bosnia. Well, it might be noticed that the terrain, cultures, leaders, peoples, and most elements of these situations were quite different from one another. It's not just a matter of sending U.S. aircraft up here and there and expecting the same results. The no-fly zone the U.S. enforced over Kurdistan after the first Gulf war worked just fine. But the one declared for the Shiite southern part of Iraq didn't. That's mainly because the U.S. government said the no-fly dictum applied only to fixed-wing aircraft, not to helicopters. And what Saddam Hussein used to put down the revolt in the south was helicopters, tanks, and ground troops.

That's precisely what would happen in Libya if the no-fly zone pertained only to fixed-wing aircraft. Because Gaddafi's main power flows from helicopters, tanks and troops, no-fly by itself would have been of very limited value. If the goal is to save civilians, there is no choice other than hitting all military targets.

So now comes the ultimate hypocrisy—the one of intoning that a sin is so mortal and a threat so deadly that only somebody else can do the job. Remember the West's joy after the Arab League's blessing of a no-fly zone? Foreign policy experts reacted as if Arabs were putting aside their Arab-first cloak and actually joining the hated Westerners in humanitarian military action. In reality, however, they were just saying, "You do it." Thus, it is no surprise that those Arabs are nowhere to be found when it comes to translating their heroic rhetoric into action. So far, it appears that their contributions will be limited to Egypt providing some arms to the Libyan "freedom fighters," four Qatari jets flying over Libya (as fast as they can, I assume), some cash payments to the Western devils, and other unspecified considerations. Just in case the self-delusory Westerners didn't get the point, the Arab League head Amr Moussa set them straight on Sunday. He criticized the Western devils for killing Libyan civilians in no-fly zone operations. Apparently, the League thought that an effective no-fly zone was like flying kites—just a beautiful thing to watch with no one being injured. Westerners must have been confused and actually believed that the Arab League desired the no-fly operation to reduce Gaddafi's killing Libyan civilians. Apparently, only some Arabs are permitted to kill certain other Arabs. In which event, the Arabs should have gone and flown their own planes against Gaddafi's in the first place. Which is precisely what I advocated in the first place—and still do.

President Obama erred initially by saying that Gaddafi "must go." Maybe he meant of his own accord or by being overthrown by his own cohorts, but he didn't specify. Then, properly, he stiff-armed those demanding an immediate no-fly operation. Instead, and properly again, he waited upon Arab League and U.N. resolutions, and upon agreements from America's overeager French and British allies on their assuming major responsibility for military action over Libya in few days. Pray that he sticks to that course and puts America in a strictly supporting role. Pray he is not drawn deeper into the Libyan snake pit by events or the hypocritical oratory of world leaders and foreign policy experts.

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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.