Over the past few days, President Obama has surprised us. For weeks, he seemed committed to avoiding military action against Libya—even though Libyans were imploring America and the West to come to their aid. But at the very last minute, when Muammar Qaddafi seemed to be only days and perhaps hours away from retaking the remainder of his country by force, Obama decided to act. It was a decision we wish he would have arrived at weeks ago. But it was the right decision. And Obama deserves credit for having made it.
(Join Richard Just and Jonathan Chait for a Livestream discussion about Libya at 4 p.m. EDT on Monday, March 21.)
To understand why Obama’s decision was not only correct but really the only decent one that was available to him, it is necessary to contemplate what would be taking place in Libya right now if we had not intervened. Late last week, Qaddafi announced that his forces, having reestablished control over most of the country, were closing in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, and issued his now infamous warning to those who refused to give up. “We are coming tonight,” he said. “We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.” Had we not intervened to cripple his forces, it seems likely that, by now, Qaddafi would be in Benghazi and, undoubtedly, carrying out bloody reprisals against his opponents. The rebellion, moreover, would effectively be over, and any hopes of freedom that the Libyan people had been entertaining would be dead, at least in the near term.
Skeptics of the intervention (including TNR contributing editor Michael Walzer, whose thoughtful analysis can be found here) have argued that one of the mission’s flaws is that its goals are woefully unclear. Are we trying to topple Qaddafi? Are we merely trying to create a safe-haven for rebels in the east? These are fair questions, but it seems to us that the most immediate goals of the mission were quite clear: first, to prevent a slaughter in Benghazi, a slaughter that Qaddafi himself had promised was only hours away; and second, to tip the balance of power in the rebellion away from Qaddafi, so that his forces were unable to retake any more of the country, thus extinguishing the resistance for good. On these terms, the intervention has already been a success.
As for what comes next: It is difficult to say whether Western airpower can tip the balance of power toward the rebels so dramatically that they will be able to topple Qaddafi. We certainly hope so. But even if it does not, an intervention that at least allows the rebels to maintain a free zone in Libya will certainly be a better outcome than the alternative—a Libya reunited under Qaddafi’s iron control.
In making this argument we are mindful of the lessons of Iraq. We supported that war, which has exacted an enormous human cost on Iraqis and Americans alike, and we long ago came to the conclusion that our support was a grave mistake. But we are also mindful of recent instances where Western power has been necessary to head off mass killing and to help oppressed people achieve their liberation. In some of these instances—Bosnia, Kosovo—we acted, and the outcomes have been generally positive. In other instances—Rwanda, Darfur—we did not act, and the results were hundreds of thousands of dead. The point is that Iraq alone cannot be used as a basis for determining the morality or predicting the efficacy of any given intervention.
Many skeptics have also pointed to the events unfolding in Bahrain, where a Sunni minority government allied with the United States has (with the help of another U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia) violently suppressed an uprising by the Shia majority. Isn’t Obama a hypocrite, many liberals have asked, for intervening to stop an autocrat in Libya but not in Bahrain? It is a legitimate point. Bahrain is said to be a difficult case for American policymakers because a revolution by the Shia majority would be a major victory for Iran. And it is true that anything which advances the interests of a brutal Iranian government in the Middle East must be seen as a setback to the cause of liberal democracy.
At the same time, the events of the last few months show that aligning oneself with autocrats is never a wise course. We spent decades paralyzed with fear about what the fall of Mubarak would mean for our strategic interests. And yet, looking back, would we not have been better off cutting Mubarak loose a generation ago, and siding forthrightly with the Egyptian people? By helping to postpone the arrival of democracy, we did not fortify our long-term strategic position one bit.
We must now think about Bahrain (and Saudi Arabia and our other repressive clients in the region) in the same terms. If our backing allows the Al Khalifa family to remain in power for a few more years, and in the process causes the Bahraini people to conclude that the United States is fundamentally hypocritical, we will in fact be helping Iran. The message of the Obama administration to the Al Khalifas and to Saudi Arabia’s rulers must now be unequivocal: You cannot rule forever, and you must begin the process of opening up your societies and paving the way for liberal democracy.
Should we have intervened diplomatically to stop the repression in Bahrain? Absolutely. But for those offering our failure in Bahrain as a reason not to intervene in Libya, here is a simple question: Would our failure in Bahrain have been in any way ameliorated by allowing Qaddafi to move into Benghazi late last week? We think the answer is a clear no.
Of course, no one knows what will happen from here forward. But this much we do know: Four days ago, a cruel dictator appeared to be on the verge of initiating a bloodbath in one of the last free zones of his country. Today, the free zone he was threatening to attack remains free. And his ability to wage war against a justified rebellion seems to have been at least somewhat compromised. Without Western intervention—that is, without Obama’s decision to finally do the right thing—there is little doubt that the situation would have been worse.