As Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces advance toward Benghazi, Barack Obama's administration continues to dither in its response to Libya's crisis. Although the U.S. president insists that all options are on the table, his administration has failed to outline a plan that could conceivably help the Libyan rebels oust Qaddafi and end the bloodshed. The weak American response pales in comparison with countries such as France -- which has recognized Libya's revolutionary council as the country's legitimate government and has contemplated airstrikes -- and even the Arab League, which endorsed a no-fly zone over the weekend.
Meanwhile, some in the foreign-policy establishment have marshaled a number of arguments for U.S. inaction. Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass argued in the Wall Street Journal, for example, that U.S. interests in Libya were "less than vital" and made the case that a no-fly zone would be ineffective at halting Qaddafi's forces. Writing in the Washington Post, retired Gen. Wesley Clark stated that "violence in Libya is not significant in comparison" with recent civil wars in Africa and fighting in Darfur, and that there is "no clear basis for action." And early in the conflict, when reports of regime violence against civilians were at their peak, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen claimed, "We've ... not been able to confirm that any of the Libyan aircraft have fired on their own people."
These arguments are not new. They have been brought forth time and again when the United States and the international community debated whether to intervene in order to halt state-sponsored attacks on civilians. What's more, one of the most eloquent rebuttals to these recurring claims for nonintervention was penned by none other than an official currently serving in the Obama administration. Senior National Security Council official Samantha Power, in her 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell, identified several reasons behind the United States' repeated failure to prevent genocide.
The first reason for U.S. inaction to prevent the mass killing of civilians is supposed lack of knowledge. In many cases, Power notes:
The most common response is, "We didn't know." This is not true. To be sure, the information emanating from countries victimized by genocide was imperfect. Embassy personnel were withdrawn, intelligence assets on the ground were scarce, editors were typically reluctant to assign their reporters to places where neither U.S. interests nor American readers were engaged, and journalists who attempted to report the atrocities were limited in their mobility. As a result, refugee claims were difficult to confirm and body counts notoriously hard to establish. Because genocide is usually veiled under the cover of war, some U.S. officials at first had genuine difficulty distinguishing deliberate atrocities against civilians from conventional conflict.
Despite these difficulties, it is clear that the violence being deployed by the Libyan regime is indiscriminate and not solely directed at the poorly armed rebels. Qaddafi expressed his intention early in the conflict to "cleanse Libya house by house," and as government forces attempt to retake towns controlled by the rebels, reports of shelling of civilian areas and firing on civilian and humanitarian vehicles have increased. Refugees fleeing the initial outbreak of violence described a brutal scene of bodies hanging from electricity poles and militia trucks loaded with the dead.
As Power wrote about previous U.S. responses to genocide, "U.S. officials who 'did not know' or 'did not fully appreciate' chose not to." It might be convenient to avert our eyes or write off such reports as exaggerated opposition claims, but there are enough examples of such accounts that the human toll in Libya is undeniable.
Skeptics of intervention also argue that the United States cannot have much of an impact without a sizable U.S. military commitment -- a commitment that is then dismissed as imprudent.
U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder raised this point last week, saying, "Even if [a no-fly zone] were to be established, [it] isn't really going to impact what is happening there today." Haass also made this case in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, claiming that if a no-fly zone is not enough, the United States would then need military personnel on the ground, which would be a drastic and unwise escalation of U.S. involvement. Similarly, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told lawmakers that the implementation of a no-fly zone "begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses," essentially an act of war.