The beginning of U.S. and NATO military attacks on Libya came as a surprise to most Americans -- not least anti-war and pro-peace voters like myself who have supported President Obama as a candidate and now as chief executive. I was at the start, and remain, deeply concerned about the path the president is choosing.
There is a strong anti-war case for staying out of Libya. These kinds of No-Fly Zones always end in troops on the ground. Intervening in a civil war is almost always a miscalculation of the situation on the ground. The American system of checks and balances does require congressional authority for the use of war powers. Adherents to traditional foreign policy logic would argue that there is no specific U.S. national interest at stake in the outcome of the Libyan uprisings. We seem to have entered the conflict without an obvious exit strategy already in place.
But I have come to believe that the alternative would've left many of us asking: why did we let another massacre of civilians happen again?
I believe that there is a pro-peace case for intervention in Libya based upon our responsibility to protect innocent civilians. If you are a pacifist this argument will never be satisfactory. But if you believe there are limited circumstances in which military force is necessary, this may be one of those circumstances.
The reality, which has yet to be explained directly to the American people by the president, is that the Army loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was racing across the Libyan Desert intent on killing all of the rebels who have taken control of the Eastern part of the country and invade the opposition's capital city in the Libyan port of Benghazi.
Gaddafi was promising a bloodbath -- threatening, in essence, to murder the families of thousands of rebel fighters. On the eve of the United Nations Security Council resolution vote, the lunatic dictator said that, "We are coming tonight... We will find you in your closets... We will have no mercy and no pity."
When the U.N. voted and the U.S. decided to lead the coalition, Gaddafi had the means, motive and intent to murder thousands unless somebody stopped the Libyan Army's offensive. The president decided to stop that military attack on civilians. The question that President Obama was given was this: is this a genocide about to happen on my watch? Does the U.S. let Benghazi become another Srebrenica?
In Srebrenica, Serbian forces and paramilitaries murdered more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys in July of 1995. The prosecutor found that even male babies were killed. It was the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II. The mass killing was followed by the forcible removal of nearly 30,000 women, children and elderly. This was after a United Nations Protection Force failed to stop the invasion of the town.
This was not the first time the international community has wrestled with these issues. President Clinton stated that the failure of the international community to intervene in Rwanda was one of the biggest regrets of his presidency. More than 800,000 people were killed in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
Gaddafi's threat to the civilians in Benghazi was and is very real. The city of some 700,000 is the capital of the opposition Libyan government. Early during the rebellion, mercenaries were sent by Gaddafi to kill opponents of the regime -- murdering them and destroying their homes. Before the Gaddafi-loyalist mayor was driven from the city he was given the nickname, "The Executioner." More than 200 protestors were killed during one anti-government protest.
These events happened so quickly and with so little explanation of the facts on the ground that I had to go back and read newspaper accounts that I had missed.
While protecting civilians is the pro-peace case for the intervention, it is not a cut and dry issue. We have yet to see the international community successfully carry out a military intervention like this without greater commitment of troops and money.
The precedent is bad because the U.S. and the international community will not intervene in every rebellion against a dictator, probably not even every rebellion that threatens genocide. It is hard to believe that a U.S. president or the international community will agree that the responsibility to protect civilians trumps national security or traditional definitions of vital interests yet. Nor is there any clear exit strategy for the international community from Libya.
Complicating matters is that Libya is in a state of civil war. Civil wars are the worst possible place for a foreign military intervention. Often the divisions are along ethnic or tribal lines that are barely understandable by even astute outside observers. Victors will seek retributions that can be as horrible or more horrible than those they suffered.
In Iraq this manifested as sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia. The war, which was an American-led invasion and occupation, broke the Iraqi state, plunged Iraq into civil war and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians have died in that war, according to some estimates.
Libya could descend into a similar pattern of attacks and retributions if either Gaddafi or the rebels win, although at least in Benghazi the new civilian opposition leadership of the city seems to be acting with restraint. The uprising seems to be routed in the new Arab democratic movements that swept Tunisia and Egypt.
Increasing numbers of observers believe that the most likely outcome is a stalemate with rebels in the East and Gaddafi forces in the West. This leaves more unanswered questions. Would there be a border between the two sides? Would there be a demilitarized zone? Or would there be a constantly shifting front line? What is the human toll of that war?
It is hard to see how this stalemate doesn't happen. The rebels don't seem to have the strength to defeat Gaddafi and the dictator continues to benefit from a base of loyalist support. Even if Gaddafi exits it isn't clear that ends the conflict. Saddam Hussein was captured, tried, convicted and executed; yet the war raged on in Iraq.
So with all of these Libyan quagmires on the horizon what exactly is the pro-peace case for the military intervention in Libya? It comes down to this: assuming a civil war is inevitable, stopping certain massacres and protecting civilians is the priority, even knowing that you have to figure the rest out later.
It is an unsatisfactory answer but the sad truth is that once the rebellion started, and Gaddafi decided to stay, the likelihood of any good outcome to the whole episode probably evaporated.
The uncertain future -- the quagmire -- is what is so unsettling now. In this regard the president's strategy becomes compelling. If we can build a real international coalition, at least the U.S. has an exit strategy even if others stay. That has to be a U.S. goal now.
But even then the case for a pro-peace military intervention balances on this unspeakable moral question: would the prolonged civil war be more costly to civilian lives than allowing the Libyan Army to enter Benghazi? We risk terrible hubris to try to address that question, but the answer is that you must try to both stop the massacre and then the stop the prolonged war.
That is the decision that was made by President Obama. Whether it will save lives is something we must hope for. For now, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for a limited intervention with the goal of disabling Gaddafi's ability to wage war on the Libyan people.
While I can make this case for a U.S. military intervention to save lives, there are important roles to be played by opponents of the decision.
Congress should assert its authority over war powers and ask tough questions about the policy and the costs. That is a necessary part of the American system of checks and balances.
Anti-war and pro-peace constituencies should ask the tough questions and agitate for non-violent solutions.
Republican opponents should make their case (hopefully without partisan aims). Let the American people hear all the arguments.
In fact, we should have a national debate about Libya -- the human cost of war is too high to happen without debate.
In the end though, the decision is more clear-cut than it looked from afar: the U.S. acted so that Benghazi would not become another Srebrenica.
I can support that.