In Wednesday’s IHT, H.D.S. Greenway argued against Western enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya. “Another Anglo-American intervention,” Greenway wrote, “would awaken all the suspicions that once again the world’s present and past policemen were interfering because of oil.” Job C. Henning, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency, disagrees.
As the world looks on, the discredited dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi brutally clings to power and represses an uprising that seeks to reject his 40 year rule. Part of a broader exhilarating and unforeseen sea-change in Arab politics, the Libyan situation is unique in that the state has responded to protests by murdering its citizens.
This is a simple foreign policy matter: The United States should exercise moral and political leadership by assembling a coalition of nations to end this wanton violence immediately.
Standing by, fretting about the legality of taking military action and the risk of misperceptions among Arabs misses the more important opportunity.
The West should take this chance to support human rights at the most fundamental level. We should stand against a state that seeks to use its sovereign status as a shield as it deprives its people of life.
In doing so we would not be perpetuating the unilateral interventionism of our actions in Iraq in 2003. Instead, we would be making an important contribution to a rule-based international society by reinforcing the emerging international legal norm of the “Responsibility to Protect.”
This principle — that mass atrocities are the responsibility of all nations — was universally adopted at the United Nations World Summit in 2005. It continues the modern evolution of sovereignty from an absolute condition to a status contingent upon behavior: States will treat other states as sovereign if they uphold certain responsibilities.
Inevitably, taking action now will not be universally popular. Many Americans are weary of the idea of the U.S. having leadership obligations abroad after Iraq and Afghanistan. Budget deficits require us to reign in federal spending, not look for new international missions. In some ways, upholding a responsibility to protect the Libyan people may even run counter to some other near-term U.S. political interests. And China and Russia would likely object.
But upholding the responsibility to protect in Libya is the morally correct thing to do, as well as an exercise in broader strategic leadership.
Many of America’s adversaries have a vested interest in protracted instability and unrest. Allowing Qaddafi to continue his killing spree is contributing to the sort of apocalyptic images that Al Qaeda seeks to promote. Such images sow fear, embitter youth and build support for extremism.
Further, Qaddafi’s violence plays into the hands of those people in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere who wish to advance the idea that “democracy is messy” — an unfortunate statement uttered by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq — and build support for the elusive promise of stability through a return to autocracy. It is in the interest of civilization and of democracy to stop the killing.
Strengthening the concept that sovereignty is contingent upon behavior would make it less likely that in the future the United States would have to act unilaterally and conduct military interventions. Norms shape future behavior, especially when they are enforced. By acting now, when the costs of action would be relatively low, we would create deterrents against future actions by “sovereign” nations.
Contrary to the suggestions of Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, advancing the responsibility to protect in Libya does not mean we have to go to war. The Department of Defense and the U.S. interagency system has spent the last decade retooling its capabilities for a wide variety of military operations. We have many options to act.
But the obvious one — courageously called for by the Libyan deputy ambassador to the United Nations in the early days of the conflict — is enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya. If America’s $1 trillion a year in defense spending doesn’t allow us to efficiently suppress Libyan air defenses, we need our money back.
While this won’t prevent many actions by the Libyan government on the ground, as the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, has noted, the immediate establishment of a no-fly zone would send an unequivocal message to Qaddafi, his loyal supporters, the Libyan opposition, and the world: The United States and its allies won’t stand by idly as another state brutalizes its people.
By Job C. Henning, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and former co-director of the Project on National Security Reform in Washington.