Where are the humanitarians on Libya? The country is swiftly turning into another Somalia. The government is paralyzed, while its authority throughout the country has disintegrated. Brutal tribal and Islamist militias rule. Egyptian Christians and black Africans are subject to mistreatment, torture, and execution on racial and religious grounds. A rebellion by resentful Easterners and greedy security men has almost entirely choked off the country’s oil supply, its economic lifeline. Running on reserves, by the end of the year the government may no longer be able to provide food, medicine, electricity, or salaries.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda factions driven out of Mali by the French make their home in Libya’s southern desert, armed with weapons plundered from Qaddafi’s arsenals. Other arms, and no doubt Islamist fighters as well, flow to the rebel forces in Syria, strengthening precisely those elements that most threaten our counterweight to Assad. A year ago, Senators McCain and Graham repeatedly cited our apparent success in Libya as a model for intervention in Syria. They haven’t mentioned it lately.
Have the Libyans now suffered less as a result of our intervention than they would have had Qaddafi taken Benghazi? What will the answer to that question be after government-supplied food, medicine, and electricity run out?
Did we cause the political, humanitarian, and security crisis currently engulfing Libya? Yes and no. The problems are rooted in Libya’s political culture. Yet they were known before we acted. Our intervention’s tragic outcome was predictable and predicted.
At some point, the humanitarian impulse runs up against our inability to enforce and pay for universal world order. The humanitarians may have felt gratified when Qaddafi was barred from Benghazi. Do they now see our intervention as a success? Or would they have us occupy the country and restore order? I honestly don’t know. Some did call for a peacekeeping force after Qaddafi’s fall. Would those American and coalition troops now be enmeshed in an extended Libyan war of occupation? What would that have done to our willingness to intervene now in Syria?
Humanitarian considerations ought to play a role in our actions across the world, but not as the primary driver. Security concerns must remain paramount because American blood and treasure is finite, while the sorrows of the world are not.
We could have drawn our red line against proliferation of Syria’s chemical weapons, rather than internal use. True, that would have allowed Assad to gas his own people with impunity. It would also have chipped away at the wider taboo against the use of chemical weapons in war.
Yet by insisting on policing the internal use of chemical weapons, we have landed ourselves in a no-win situation. A limited strike may not only lay bare our inability to block internal use, it may goad Assad into further chemical attacks, even proliferation. Attempted regime change could have the same effects, or worse. Even in strictly humanitarian terms, we may shortly be no better off than we would have been had we drawn our red line against proliferation rather than use. In security terms, humanitarian hawkishness has already damaged our credibility, while raising the dangers of proliferation far higher than they were weeks ago.
Humanitarian interventionism feels good in theory. In practice, it fails.