Wednesday, March 9, 2011


There is something wrong with the debate about whether the United States should intervene in Libya. Reported Pentagon opposition to a no-flight zone made it sound as if they see any US involvement as a World War II operation, requiring new air bases, facilities for multiple refueling tanker aircraft, massive suppressive fire on all Libyan air bases, etc.

These doubtlessly reflect an understandable mood of "no more Iraq's or Afghanistan's". As a one-time naval officer and lifetime student and practitioner of national security issues, I applaud Defense Secretary Gates’ doctrine urging just that. Libyan oil is certainly in the picture. But no one except perhaps the ruling Libyan sociopath is interpreting help to defenseless civilians as a new armed, democracy-exporting, nation-building war by the West.

The policy quandaries have resulted in a month-long paralysis and hand-wringing by the United States, as well as the UN and NATO, both of which require US leadership.The President’s month in the Situation Room that so far has produced a completely rhetorical defense of civilians being bombed and machine-gunned by their own government is unworthy of him, The late Harlan Cleveland described what he called "hardening of the categories'. So if a Libyan coastal no-flight zone and covert help to the embattled rebels does not fit the vast and ominous model advanced by the bureaucracy, what category that is temporary, offshore, largely symbolic but potentially game-changing, does fit?

The Libyan scene bears no resemblance to the great wars of history. It is more like a massive mugging by a freakish but iron-clawed ruler who got super-rich thanks to everyone's addiction to oil. Libya is as large as Alaska. but it is 90 percent desert, and is concentrated along a coast convenient to a naval flotilla and other assets of our half-trillion dollar a year (not counting Iraq and Afghanistan) military establishment and $80 billion intelligence apparatus.

US national security has, for better or worse, always had a moral component. A pair of moral elements belong in thinking about US intervention. Both grew out of failures to act in the face of criminal governmental assaults on helpless civilian populations. One was a belated public apology by President Bill Clinton in 1998 for the disgraceful way the United States and others averted their gaze as hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were slaughtered. The other theoretically transformed international relations when a United Nations summit in 2005 approved a doctrine of "responsibility to protect" that legalized hitherto forbidden interference in the internal affairs of a state in conditions of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity.

There are times when the most powerful and influential nation in the world needs to act on the basis of both national interest and national values, which converge in the Libyan case. The advice of counselors is carefully considered, but under the Constitution the president makes the decisions. Ideally, the international community -- the UN and NATO -- on our insistence authorize an immediate operation that demoralizes the pilots and mercenaries doing the slaughtering, and sends an unmistakable message of overwhelming over-the-horizon strength. If they fail to act, form a coalition of the willing, and just do it.

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