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War Torn

by Editor on March 20th, 2011

In 1994, at the time of the Rwandan genocide, I was working for a small foundation in Washington, DC. My boss and I were both outraged by the dithering response of then-President Bill Clinton’s administration. He sat on numerous policy making boards around town, and knew lots of people—in government, in non-governmental organizations, in other foundations and think tanks. Call after call my boss made seemed to result in sympathy, lots of people agreeing that the situation was messy, but not much in the way of actual action.

One day, I came in to work and the two of us discussed it again. For me, the Rwandan genocide was reminiscent of American dithering during the holocaust, the kind of inaction so well documented by historians like David Wyman: we can mythologize Franklin Delano Roosevelt all we want, but in the end, addressing the mass murder of Jews (and others) was not a policy priority. For my boss, a producer of the movie Shoah, there was a sense of immediacy to the world’s failure to live up to the “never again” theme. He felt he needed to act, and where his phone calls had little impact, he thought a public platform might: he rounded up some big names, people whose opinions might matter to the Clinton administration, and took out full page ads in the Washington Post and New York Times calling on the US government to act.

This bit of history has been on my mind as I read the news about the attacks on Libyan government troops and military installations, in support of rebel groups that were about to be routed—and as I read the mostly ambivalent comments of people on Facebook, Twitter, and news sites. Suddenly, the United States and a selection of allies (including, shockingly, the typically risk-averse French) are launching another war. Maybe. Or maybe they just aim to degrade Libya’s military capabilities enough to give the rebels a (pardon the pun) fighting chance against Colonel Qaddafi.

I am not comparing Libya and Rwanda; the situations are very different. But the ambivalence people feel (including, it seems, our own president) strikes me as very similar. Especially when combined with the mental and financial exhaustion that comes from all this fighting abroad with uncertain goals, limited investments and thus limited impact, and a weariness over the enduring cycle of bad news.

In one of its opinion pieces this week, The Economist wrote encouragingly of military intervention in Libya. It included this argument: “Democracies wisely set obstacles in the way of those who seek to put the world to rights by fighting—however good their motives. Bitter experience in Iraq has taught how liberators soon come to be seen as oppressors. … At the same time, democracies shrink from the idea that might is right. After the genocide in Rwanda, nations took on a duty to stop mass-killing if they could. Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Liberia all showed that outsiders can in fact help avert catastrophes. The Arab awakening is all about human dignity and the rights of ordinary people—values that the West lives by and seeks to promote. For the West to turn its back on Libya’s rebels and to stand aside while its allies shoot protesters in Bahrain betrays its own values.”

Of course, The Economist neglects to mention Darfur, in Sudan, where we largely failed to stop the killings until it was too late. Or the multi-year war in Congo, also known as “Africa’s world war,” where more than 5 million people have been killed, and many more raped or brutalized, in another ethnically driven conflict. The Egyptians managed to overthrow Mubarak without outside military interference. Amidst all this, should we really treat the Libyans differently? How do we draw the line between Libya and Syria, where new reports suggest more protests and more crackdowns are also happening? And it must be acknowledged that we do this all while we rationalize military inaction in Bahrain, presumably because it would hurt the Saudi troops on the ground there, and thus our relationship with another major oil producer.

I sincerely wish the Libyan people well, and hope for their freedom amidst desperate circumstances. But consider me among the ambivalent, working hard not to veer much further towards the cynical.

Updates: Some other articles of interest, from a few different sources, supporting reasons to be cautious about our Libyan engagement:

  • In the National Journal, Megan Scully writes of the costs of this initiative.
  • In the National Review, John Derbyshire writes of some of the criticism of President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron for this whole engagement.
  • In my view, the New York Times has been a bit of a cheerleader for this mini-war–but they have a piece by David Kirkpatrick that makes clear how little we really know about what to expect as an end-result in Libya.
  1. the older i get the more absolutely pacifist i become. i have a theory, not particularly provable at this point, that violent strongmen and genocidal activity are manifest reactions to previous control efforts and violence. the kneejerk reaction to any suggestion of military action should always be NO NO NO NO NO and you move on from there…. i see you’re also getting into it with Barlow on this.

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