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Libya: A Worsening Humanitarian and Refugee Crisis

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As the Middle East goes through breathtaking generational change, the United States plays catch up. U.S. leaders ought to call up all the diplomatic finesse and creativity they can muster. Repositioning the U.S. as a friend to the people and not the puppet master behind the autocrats will be no cakewalk. But, the crisis in Libya provides an opportunity for the United States to use diplomacy and aid to build goodwill with the newly empowered people of the region.

The U.S. has just pledged a modest $12 million for humanitarian operations and emergency evacuation and repatriation for foreign nationals. Humanitarian teams from the State Department are heading to Libya to assess the need for further aid and the U.S. should give generously once that assessment is completed.

There is far more we can do. The Obama administration can work closely with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as well as the neighboring countries of Egypt, Tunisia and Niger. Medical care is a priority. Help is needed to develop field hospitals and to fund medicine, ambulances, medical equipment and emergency personnel. There's an urgent need for shelter and emergency supplies like blankets, bedding and generators. After the tragic Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004, the U.S. provided $350 in immediate humanitarian assistance. (That's less than what we're spending in Afghanistan in Iraq every day.) When faced with the tsunami crisis, the U.S. rolled up its sleeves and responded generously: hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, 15,000 in U.S. personnel, ships, aircraft, all for peaceful assistance. For its generosity the U.S. received a bonus. The standing of the United States grew in the region and support for Al Qaeda and terrorism plummeted.

The need for urgent action for Libya is growing. More than 180,000 frightened refugees have poured across Libya's borders into Egypt, Tunisia and Niger after traveling for days. The UN refugee agency estimates that about 80,000 people have fled to Egypt, and a similar number have fled into Tunisia. Thousands have crossed the southern border into Niger. The exodus from the conflict zone is not letting up. Tens of thousands of refugees wait in chaotic crowds at the border with refugee camps growing by thousands each day.

This is a food crisis, a health crisis and a shelter crisis. Water and hygiene are big challenges. Libya relies on imports for over 90% of its food supplies. Food assistance is needed not only for refugees but within Libya where food stocks are becoming depleted. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: "We need concrete action on the ground to provide humanitarian and medical assistance. Time is of the essence. Thousands of lives are at risk."

There is so much we can do. But let's not allow "just do something" urgency create a rush to military action. U.S. led no-fly zones, which some Senators are calling for, could lead to wider military involvement. It's naive to believe there is a simple airborne military solution to the crisis on the ground. As Secretary of State Clinton pointed out, U.S. or NATO-led military action could look like an oil grab, at a time where self-determination, dignity and democracy are what people are fighting for.

The tragic events unfolding in Libya should drive home the need for strong institutions and funding to help when this type of disaster hits. Every day, somewhere in the world, "lives are at risk." Successful programs like the UN's Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) are chronically underfunded. This illuminates a chronic structural problem in government finances around the world. The health, shelter, and food programs that truly save lives and protect people from natural and man-made disasters go begging while military budgets grow.

Sadly, the Republican leadership in the House is busy slashing the critical and underfunded programs that help deal with these crises. The House is seeking cuts for fiscal 2011 that include reduced funding for international food programs by up to 50 percent compared to 2010 levels. The cuts also propose that the State Department budget for refugees be 40-percent less than 2010 levels, while the International Disaster Assistance Fund be reduced by 67 percent. It will be up to the Senate to protect these programs. While the world's eyes are on the crisis in Libya, we must also work to turn back these attacks on critical humanitarian programs. These programs, based on international cooperation and a broad definition of human security, can do far more for world peace and security than the billions we have been spending on counterproductive wars.