When interests meet ideals in the arena of states, ideals lose out. How shall we count the ways? In recent times, there were Somalia, Rwanda and Darfur—the massacres and the ethnic cleansing dwarfing anything happening in Syria or, last summer, in Libya. In more ancient history, the world allowed Japan to grab Manchuria and wipe out Nanking. Mussolini used poison gas to conquer Abyssinia while the League of Nations postured and then fell apart. The U.S. wouldn't even bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, the reasons put forward being: We need the ordinance for the war against the Germans.
How to explain the foot-dragging of the international community in sanctioning the repression that has rained down on Syria? Answer: The international community has never rushed to denounce repression, wherever it has taken place. It likes the status quo. It hates, as the great French poet Charles Baudelaire put it, movement that shifts the lines. And in principle and tradition, it is scared witless of all that may upset its habits and broad stability in the world.
In 1992, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, Jacques Poos, declared that “the hour of Europe” had arrived. The minister pronounced this falsehood in relation to the catastrophe in Bosnia, where, he assured, the reach of Luxembourg and that of its European neighbors would soon put an end to the slaughter. The hour of Europe stretched across three sickening years, culminating in the spectacle of Dutch troops cuffed to lampposts and ending only when an American column of 70-ton tanks from the First Armored Division crossed the Danube. Fast forward to 2011.
From the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO’s future was in question. While it had been the most successful multinational alliance in history, partnerships of that sort seldom survive once their enemies are gone. As the Berlin Wall came down and Stalin’s empire shattered, NATO’s clock was ticking. Amazingly, though, the Alliance persisted, largely by transforming itself. It staved off a challenge from a proposed European Union Defense Force, which might have supplanted it; provided an institutional framework for continued U.S.
Here is one lesson we can draw from the mostly negative media commentary about the Obama administration’s actions in Libya: Presidents get more credit for stopping atrocities after they begin than for preventing them before they get out of hand. The U.S.-led NATO intervention that stopped mass killing in Bosnia in 1995, for example, came only after 200,000 people had already been killed.
Fittingly enough, the world’s first airstrike came exactly a century ago, on an autumn day in 1911. Eerily enough, it came in Libya, where, one day during the Italian-Turkish war of 1911-1912, Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti flew his paper-thin Taube monoplane over a camp of Turks and Arabs, dropped four hand grenades (having pulled the pins out with his teeth), and generated headlines such as this: “AVIATOR LT. GAVOTTI THROWS BOMB ON ENEMY CAMP.
Those showers in Washington last week? That wasn’t rain. That was Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, and the other architects of post-war American foreign policy looking down and weeping on us. Or worse. The heirs and custodians of their tradition never sounded so thick. In place of George Kennan’s 8000-word Long Telegram about the Soviet Union, the Obama administration’s consultant and its former State Department policy planning chief, Anne-Marie Slaughter, issued a forceful tweet about Libya.
Each president of the United States enters office thinking he will be able to define the agenda and set the course of America’s relations with the rest of the world. And, almost invariably, each confronts crises that are thrust upon him—wars, revolutions, genocides, and deadly confrontations. Neither Woodrow Wilson nor FDR imagined having to plunge America into world war. Truman had to act quickly, and with little preparation, to confront the menace of Soviet expansion at war’s end.
While sitting in Istanbul‘s Attaturk International Airport waiting for a flight, I was stunned to hear a BBC announcer report that my colleague and friend U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke had just died. I knew that he had been rushed to George Washington University Hospital with a torn aorta. But, despite the seriousness of his condition, it was still unimaginable that he would not recover. After all, had “Holbrooke,” as his friends and colleagues always referred to him, not always prevailed?