Stepping In

Libya doesn't meet any of the criteria for a humanitarian intervention. We should do it anyway.

In September 1999, in the aftermath of the brutal ethnic cleansing that Serbian forces had perpetrated on the civilian population of Kosovo, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the General Assembly on the subject of humanitarian intervention. The struggle over the appropriate response to the atrocities, Annan said, had "revealed the core challenge to the Security Council and to the United Nations as a whole in the next century: to forge unity behind the principle that massive and systematic violations of human rights -- wherever they may take place -- should not be allowed to stand." Annan's speech was greeted rapturously in the West -- but not in the developing world. Answering Annan in the General Assembly, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria said bluntly that "interference in internal affairs may take place only with the consent of the state in question."

The debate over intervention has gone around and around the same circle ever since. Western leaders and Western thinkers -- including Annan, whose views were shaped far more by decades of international service than by his boyhood in Ghana -- have argued for the moral imperative of intervention in various forms to prevent or stop atrocities. The ex-colonial countries of the developing world, meanwhile, have invoked the sanctity of state sovereignty. The universal adoption in 2005 of the principle of "the responsibility to protect" has blunted that divide somewhat by shifting the emphasis from the right of outsiders to intervene to the obligation of all states to prevent atrocities. But the debates over action in Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere were dominated by the same threadbare claims of sovereignty. Effective action was impossible so long as the neighbors insisted on protecting the abusive tyrant.

Until now. In the debate over intervention in Libya, Russian diplomats have contented themselves with the usual boilerplate on sovereignty, but Arab states, remarkably, have not. The same Arab leaders who protect murderous despots like Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir have called on the West to take forceful action to oust Libya's leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi. In recent days, the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as the leaders of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, have called for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya. Soon after Qaddafi began his attacks on unarmed civilians, the Qatari foreign ministry, which maintains equable relations with virtually all parties to Middle East conflicts, issued a statement criticizing "the silence of the international community over the bloody events in Libya."

Of course, the fact that Libya's neighbors are calling for a no-fly zone doesn't, by itself, make it a good idea. After all, they're not proposing to do anything but vote on it; the actual work would most likely have to be done by the United States and NATO, which in practice means the United States, which has the air assets in the region. And Russia or China could still block Security Council authorization for further action. But in this case, the legitimacy of Arab bodies counts for much more than the council's authorization. Qaddafi will, of course, try to portray himself as the victim of a Western crusade. That would be a lot harder if both Libya's rebels and Arab leaders publicly call for the action, and stand by it (which is, of course, far from a certainty). Arab endorsement removes the single greatest political obstacle to action.

So should NATO oblige Libya's outraged neighbors? Quite apart from the stupendous tactical difficulties that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has raised, and which opponents of a no-fly zone have been happy to repeat -- and which strike me as the kind of military hyperbole Colin Powell deployed to argue against intervention in Bosnia in 1993 -- a no-fly zone may be the wrong solution to the Libyan crisis. Although Qaddafi's forces have made increasingly effective use of airpower, they would still enjoy a decisive military advantage over the rebels without it. U.S. pilots could find themselves in the sickening position of watching helplessly while Libyan ground forces pulverize their adversaries -- as U.S. forces did over southern Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

There is no point in establishing a no-fly zone unless both the West and Arab leaders are prepared to take the next step. This would be the kind of airstrikes that finally brought Slobodan Milosevic to heel in 1995: strikes against troop concentrations, bunkers, air-defense systems, and the like. This would be an outright act of war, though one that did not put foreign boots on Libyan soil. The goal, of course, would not be to induce Qaddafi to come to the negotiating table -- a Hitler-like Götterdämmerung is much more likely -- but to damage and demoralize his forces and thus tip the scales between the government and the rebels. That might not take long, but of course military planners have to think about worst-case scenarios. The rebels are very disorganized, and Qaddafi and his men are very desperate. And according to a recent New York Times report, Qaddafi has enough cash to keep paying his militias for a long time to come.

So is it worth doing? If a Western-led intervention had the full support of neighbors and if it had a reasonable chance of operational success, would it constitute a proper use of U.S. military resources? The question of who rules this desert state is not, after all, a matter of U.S. national security. And though Qaddafi has plainly committed terrible atrocities, they don't begin to compare with those perpetrated by Bashir or Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, or by the factions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So neither the strategic nor the humanitarian case for action is overwhelming. And to be effective, that action would require a serious commitment of military force. So again, why do it?

Because it would be the right thing, and because it would be good for the United States. It would be the right thing because U.S. and NATO force could stop a ruthless tyrant from killing his own people and bring his monstrous rule to an end. Western intervention in the Congo wouldn't have solved the problem, while military action in Darfur might well have provoked a massive backlash in the Islamic world. But Libya is a case where force could work and where it will be deployed only after non-coercive methods have proved unavailing, as the doctrine of the responsibility to protect requires. And it would redound to America's benefit because the United States would be placing its military power at the disposal of the Arab world in order to liberate Arab peoples.

Of course, absolutely everything about such a plan could go wrong. The Arab League could change its mind once the rubble began to fly; an American plane could get shot down; missiles could go awry and kill civilians; a rebel victory could throw Libya into chaos, or sharia, or back into charismatic authoritarianism. Or surgical strikes, like a no-fly zone, could prove unavailaing. What then? A full-scale intervention? (Answer: It's a moot point, because the neighbors would never approve it.) And since any of these things could happen, the dictates of prudence might argue that U.S. policymakers take a pass at the unprecedented invitation to act.

White House officials, of course, are hoping that the rebels will win on their own. So is everyone. But if the rebels keep floundering, as seems increasingly likely, President Barack Obama will have to choose either to act or to forego action. We have learned that his idealism is even more tempered by caution -- by prudence -- than we had initially thought. It's very hard to predict which way he'll go. I know which I would prefer.


Terms of Engagement

Cairo 1.5

The Arab world that Barack Obama addressed in his famous speech two years ago is history. It's time for him to speak to the new one.

It's too early for President Barack Obama's administration to formulate a new long-term strategy for the Middle East; no one knows what it will look like six months hence, or for that matter, next week. But it's already clear that the Middle East which Obama addressed in his Cairo speech in June 2009 no longer exists, and thus that the premises of the strategy behind that speech no longer apply.

Administration officials are reported to have begun thinking about how they must adapt to this transformed environment. Sen. John Kerry has begun working with colleagues from both parties to draw up a new package of economic aid for Arab countries seeking to move toward democracy. In that spirit, I offer, not Cairo 2.0, but something more provisional -- let's say, Cairo 1.5.

Salaam Aleikum. My friends, I have returned to Cairo, almost two years after my last visit, because, thanks to the courage of its people in overthrowing a regime they had come to despise, Egypt has reasserted its role at the very center of the Arab political order. That order, for many years, was an autocratic one. Now it is struggling toward freedom. The outcome of that struggle remains unclear and, of course, will vary greatly from state to state. But all those who cherish freedom have an obligation to help the peoples of the Arab world build a new order.

What does that mean in practice? First, I must acknowledge a simple, if inconvenient, truth: We in the United States, while encouraging democracy in the Arab world, were never quite sure we wanted it. Precisely because they were not accountable to the public, autocratic leaders could advance American and Western national security goals that Arab publics broadly did not accept. We were not prepared to push those leaders very hard; that was why the last time I came before you I admonished regional leaders to "maintain your power through consent, not coercion" -- but didn't single out any of them by name. I acknowledge that we may have raised expectations we were not prepared to satisfy.

I come before you today to say that we have put that ambivalence aside. We embrace the truth that in the long run a democratic Middle East is the essential precondition to securing regional peace and stability, and to ending the scourge of terrorism. But that's the long run. In the years to come, both we and you will have to make painful adjustments. My country cannot and will not abandon its core security interests; but now we must advance those interests in ways that citizens in the Middle East can accept. I will get to that in a moment.

The second thing the United States can do to help the birth of a new Middle East is to provide diplomatic support to the forces of change. Above all, we must help prevent backsliding in those places where the old order has been overthrown and a new one has yet to be born. That means making it clear to transitional leaders in Egypt and Tunisia that ongoing American military and economic support will be conditioned on laying out a clear path to elections and on bringing democratic forces into the government right away. Elsewhere, we will not become advocates for "regime change" -- that's your business, not ours -- but we will press leaders in Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere to accept the legitimacy of popular protest; and we will do this with the full understanding that reform could lead to governments less sympathetic to American policy in the region.

In several states, notably Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, citizens have paid a high price for their demands for freedom not only in human but in economic terms. So the third step for the United States and the international community is to provide humanitarian and developmental assistance. Humanitarian aid, especially in Libya, must be forthcoming immediately and without conditions; development aid will depend on political change. Here I suggest as a model our own Millennium Challenge Account, which provides funds for states that make strides on indices of democracy and transparency. I propose that new money be made available for states that embrace reform, whether or not they meet current MCA standards. This will not be "democracy assistance," directed toward political party-building and the like, unless states ask for it. Struggling democracies need economic opportunity, and we must help supply it.

The United States will help, but other countries must pitch in. The only way I can persuade a very reluctant U.S. Congress to add new money to a foreign aid budget already under threat is if the lion's share comes from other wealthy countries in the West and in the Arab world.

The one true democracy in the Middle East is, of course, Israel, and I believe that over time aspiring democracies in the region will look to Israel for lessons and even help. But this can't happen until the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is solved -- the fourth element of a new Middle East. In 2009, I implored the Palestinians to refrain from violence, and the Israelis to stop building settlements. The Palestinians largely complied, but Israel -- thanks in part to legitimate fears that Hamas will not accept any agreement and will exploit a withdrawal to attack Israel's borders -- did not.

Leaders in Egypt and Jordan, whom Israel has relied on for support in the past, are now weakened or gone; as pressure from more representative governments grow, Israel will have little choice but to reach a two-state solution acceptable to the Palestinians. I believe, and I hope, that Israel's leaders will come to accept this reality. The United States will continue to serve as Israel's security guarantor even while driving home the imperative of territorial compromise -- including by supporting the Palestinian government's current drive for sovereign recognition. But states in the region must reassure Israel that it can afford to take such painful steps by supporting a two-state solution and isolating those, like Hamas and Hezbollah, that seek Israel's destruction.

The fifth and final issue where we must redraw the social contract between an emerging democratic Middle East and its partners in the West is terrorism. The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remove one of the great recruitment tools for Islamic extremists, as will the replacement of despotic governments in the region by genuinely representative ones. But the extremists will, if anything, grow more violent as their cause becomes more desperate. And they will be quick to exploit the inevitable disorder, even chaos, produced by the shattering of the old order. In the past, U.S. counterterrorism policy depended on secret understandings struck with leaders unaccountable to their own citizens, who might have bridled at an American presence on the ground and, often, in the air. This arrangement, which originated during the Cold War, will not survive the transition to democracy.

And yet, because a democratic Middle East poses such a grave threat to the extremist narrative, terrorists are likely to target local states as well as the West. This means that while explaining counterterrorism policy has become more difficult than ever, the need for coordination has become yet greater. For our part, this means greater transparency in explaining what we do abroad -- and the abolition, once and for all, of policies like extraordinary rendition that have rightly inflamed public opinion. For emerging Middle Eastern states, it means publicly taking on and repudiating extremism in the mosques and on the streets, as well as through vigorous, and transparent, law enforcement. Autocrats said one thing in public and something else in private; now public speech will have to conform to private action.

The euphoria many of you feel today, which you have earned through painful sacrifice, will not long survive the hard struggle toward self-government. Sharp differences of opinion will threaten to degenerate into violence; demagogues will try to exploit ethnic and tribal divisions; the old elite will seek to hijack popular movements. Many of you may soon find yourselves despairing of the future -- even, perhaps, wishing for the deadly calm of the old regime. But you must remind yourselves that it was those authoritarian rulers, most of all, who believed that democracy would never flourish in the Arab world. I believe that you will prove them wrong.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images