Shadow Government

Libya is not Rwanda

The president made it clear in his speech that the U.S.-led war against Libya is primarily motivated to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. "We were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale," he said. "To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and - more profoundly - our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different."

This gives credence to the reports that Hilary Clinton, the secretary of state, Susan Rice, the U.S. permanent representative to the U.N., and Samantha Power, N.S.C. senior director for multilateral affairs, led the charge to war specifically to avoid "another Rwanda." The latter two especially have been outspoken in their belief that the United States was wrong not to intervene to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which the ethnic Hutu Interahamwe militia slaughtered some 800,000 fellow Rwandans in a few weeks while the world watched. One diplomat told Power she shouldn't let Libya become "Obama's Rwanda," according to the New York Times. Rwanda looms darkly in the liberal conscience as a powerful prod of guilt, whispering "Next time, do something. Do anything. Anything is better than nothing."

Liberals have a point about Rwanda. It was grotesque that troop-contributing countries actually withdrew their forces from the U.N. Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), rather than beef it up with more resources and authority, as the genocide unfolded. (However, Power betrays her ignorance of military realities when she argued in her book, A Problem From Hell, that the U.N. could have stopped the genocide with the assets it had on the ground at the time).

But Libya is not Rwanda. Rwanda was genocide. Libya is a civil war. The Rwandan genocide was a premeditated, orchestrated campaign. The Libyan civil war is a sudden, unplanned outburst of fighting. The Rwandan genocide was targeted against an entire, clearly defined ethnic group. The Libyan civil war is between a tyrant and his cronies on one side, and a collection of tribes, movements, and ideologists (including Islamists) on the other. The Rwandan genocidiers aimed to wipe out a people. The Libyan dictator aims to cling to power. The first is murder, the second is war. The failure to act in Rwanda does not saddle us with a responsibility to intervene in Libya. The two situations are different.

Advocates of the Libyan intervention have invoked the "responsibility to protect" to justify the campaign. But R2P is narrowly and specifically aimed at stopping genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity on a very large scale. It does not give the international community an excuse to pick sides in a civil war when convenient. Qaddafi has certainly committed crimes against humanity in this brief war, but R2P was designed to stop widespread, systematic, sustained, orchestrated crimes. If Qaddafi's barbarity meets that threshold, the administration hasn't made the case yet, and I'm not convinced. If R2P justifies Libya, then it certainly obligates us to overthrow the governments of Sudan and North Korea and to do whatever it takes to prevent the Taliban from seizing power in Kabul.

Historical analogies are sloppy thinking. U.S. policymakers went to war in Korea and Vietnam because they wanted to avoid another Munich. Liberals believe that Iraq is another Vietnam. Paleoconservatives worry that Libya is another Iraq, while liberals fear it is another Rwanda. These are rhetorical shortcuts that partisans use to excuse themselves from having to think very carefully or learn the details of each new case. One hopes the strategists in the White House will resist that temptation, but judging from Obama's speech, they aren't.

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Shadow Government

Unsatisfying explanation

My first reaction to the President Obama's speech is that he should have given it ten days ago. He didn't say anything tonight that he couldn't have said when he ordered combat operations to commence. Waiting for NATO to agree to take on the mission became a good reason for the White House to delay the Commander in Chief explaining his volte face to the nation. But it didn't actually mask the president not wanting to detract from his prior obligations in Latin America or give the appearance that Americans were running the show (even when Americans were running the show).

That slight of hand feeling pervaded the president's speech; I still don't know whether he thinks we have a national interest in Libya. In the past 36 hours, the Secretary of Defense has said we do not have a national interest in the war in Libya, the Secretary of State has said our national interest is our humanitarian interest and helping our allies who really do have national interests. In an effort to break the tie, the president described our national interests in the Libyan war as: preventing a stain on our conscience (from doing nothing), stopping Qaddafi's advance on Benghazi, preventing refugees destabilizing fragile governments in Egypt and Tunisia, showing other repressive regimes we not allow them to use force, and upholding the United Nations. Which sounds like he's siding with Secretary Gates' description but Secretary Clinton's prescription.

President Obama's checklist of why we acted consisted of: the scale of potential harm, America's unique ability to stop it, having an international mandate, and it was achievable without ground troops. The Obama Doctrine, as exposited in this speech appears to be "we care enough to prevent you from losing, but we don't care enough to help you win." That's fair enough as a risk-minimizing framework for United States foreign policy, but it is wildly at variance with the soaring language the president offered up about our commitment to freedom. And it doesn't provide very satisfying answers to what next in Libya or whether we will do this again.

I thought the comparisons to the Balkans and Iraq were both unfair. The complicated dissolution of Yugoslavia, the timing of its occurrence, and the lack of precedent made the degree of difficulty higher intervening in the Balkans (and, incidentally, the Clinton Administration delivered Germany). Iraq raises much weightier national interest arguments than the president acknowledged.

The president has taken an awful lot of credit for a pretty stingy commitment to advancing freedom -- which is not to say he should make every war of liberation an American war, just that I couldn't help wondering how it sounded to Iranian dissidents in prison since July of 2009 or voters in Ivory Coast where stolen elections are unresolved or in Darfur, wishing now for years that we cared enough to prevent militia raping and killing, to hear the President of the United States say so proudly "some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different."

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