The Senator and Libya

Last night I had a conversation with a senator, who I consider a friend, about Libya. It was a private conversation so I won't mention his name. But after listening to President Obama's speech, he was still very concerned about what the U.S. was doing in Libya. For him, the concept that we were there to protect civilians wasn't good enough. Nor was the concept that if the international community didn't weigh in, then in President Obama's words, "if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."

When this senator first ran for office, one of the questions I asked him was, "under what circumstances would you vote to authorize the president to take military action?" He viewed "military action as an instrument of last resort in international relations" and listed five standards which I believe are reasonable. I also believe the UN authorized actions that the US has taken in Libya meet these criteria. Let me know what you think:

  • Rigorous examination of claims that there is a direct and substantial threat to America's national security or the security of allies.
  • Rigorous determination that appropriate alternatives such as unilateral sanctions, multi-national sanctions, & UN peacekeepers, to military action have been thoroughly explored and evaluated in cost and effectiveness.
  • Persuasive evidence that international diplomacy has failed.
  • Clearly stated objectives for the military action.
  • Persuasive evidence that the type and form of proposed military action fits the level of threat and maximizes the probability of accomplishing the objectives.

The 2010 National Security Strategy clearly spells out the United States interest in preventing mass atrocities. In his March 28th speech President Obama went further and laid out the threat to our allies saying:

America has an important strategic interest in preventing Qaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful -- yet fragile -- transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power.... I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.

The international community tried and exhausted non-military means before it established the no fly zone. In addition to diplomatic delegations to Libya, the UN Security Council first authorized sanctions, an arms embargo and even a referral to the International Criminal Court. Rather than listening to the Security Council, Qaddafi increased his efforts to quash the opposition. This clearly persuaded the Security Council to authorize the use of force to protect civilians.

To quote the president:

"In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners ... Moreover, we've accomplished these objectives consistent with the pledge that I made to the American people at the outset of our military operations. I said that America's role would be limited; that we would not put ground troops into Libya; that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation and that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners."

NATO is now in command. The level of force used is appropriate to the mission's mandate, to protect civilians. While I would prefer to see an international, UN led, ground force robustly restoring order in Libya, the no fly zone campaign has stopped a massacre. We will need to make sure that the mission doesn't shift from protection to regime change. But for the moment its objectives are clear and being accomplished.

One final thought: The senator questioned why Libya and not North Korea, where massive human rights violations have punished the population for decades. In a perfect world, North Korea as we know it would already be consigned to the history books, but perfect consistency is not always possible. The fact that effective international action is not always possible in every instance of major humanitarian catastrophe should never be an excuse for inaction where effective responses are possible.