Like most of you – from Robert Gates down to just about every Westerner with memories of Iraq (and who can forget?) – I am super-wary of intervening in Libya: yet another conflict in a Muslim land, more white Christians killing brown Muslims, more US overstretch, an obvious threat of mission creep, the Iraq-style possibility that Al-Qaeda will come to fight us there in the chaos, etc. It could easily become a quagmire, a nightmare, yet another Afghanistan, etc. And regular readers of this blog will know that I think the US is badly overstretched, probably needs to get out of the ME, desperately needs to balance its budget with some defense cuts, and more generally should play a less ‘imperial’ role in the world. My own hope, like just about everyone else, is that the Libyan rebels can pull this off on their own and that Gadhafi might realize his time is up like Mubarak or Ben Ali (Tunisia).
However, in the last few days it increasingly looks like Gadhafi might not only hang on, but win. We don’t know of course yet, but we need to start thinking about what to do, if anything, in the case of a Gadhafi victory. It seems very likely that if Gadhafi retakes the east, he will butcher his opponents en masse. I don’t want to go in there anymore than anyone else, but we could be looking at massacre of thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of people. Not only would the leadership elites – the Libyan National Council, the new town mayors and councils, the military and old regime guys who flipped, etc. – be wiped out brutally (imagine the torture, family killings, Gestapo tactics to come). But given that something like half the country has thrown in with the rebels, one can imagine a massive crackdown reaching deep into regular society. Think of bakers who gave their product away to support local rebels, or school principals who allowed their buildings to be used for meetings, or police officers who looked the other way as the revolt first gathered strength. Given the sheer nation-wide scale of the revolt, the post-Gadhafi victory purges could be downright ghastly – like Bosnia or Rwanda.
Yes, we have seen purges before – the PLA killed perhaps 5000 at Tiananmen Square, the Burmese junta killed perhaps 3000 in 1988, Mugabe did the same in Matabeleland in the early 80s – and did nothing. But Gadhafi could be on the verge of something yet more awful – plumbing the depths of brutality we associate with Milosevic or ‘Hutu Power’ in Rwanda. The revolt’s failure could generate extermination death-tolls we haven’t seen in 20 years anywhere. (And if you think it can’t get worse, I suppose we should be ‘grateful’ that Gadhafi is not Himmler or Pol Pot.)
My sense is then that we would just have to do something. Does anyone anywhere honestly defend the West’s realpolitik behavior toward Rwanda anymore – its too far away, would likely be a quagmire, we don’t know anything about the locals, we could be there forever? All this is true, but in the face of 800,000 dead, aren’t we ashamed? We feel no moral obligation? (If you still feel that way, go watch Hotel Rwanda again, followed by Schindler’s List, then get a morality transplant.) What is the point of NATO, Obama, human rights, etc. if we permit Rwanda, part 2? Why not just close the State Department, UN, etc. altogether?
The intellectual cover to intervene could be provided by the notion of “responsibility to protect” (R2P). And if the Chinese and Russians don’t like it, well, in the face of mass atrocities on this scale, then to h— with them. We went into Kosovo in 1999 on the basis of NATO, regardless of Sino-Russian callous, self-serving flim-flam about ‘non-interference.’ Not trying to stop butchery approaching genocidal levels, right on NATO’s doorstep no less, is a total moral abdication. This is beyond ‘realism;’ this will be an obvious, catastrophic moral failure that will rightfully haunt us all. This is a chance to stop a second Rwanda – probably the most awful event in human history since Pol Pot. I just can’t imagine that we should do nothing.
All this said, yes, we must limit our exposure. This is not Bushism – freeing the world from tyranny forever, democratic invasions, American empire, etc. This is a (very minimal) human rights-based argument in order to prevent the very worst. (This is hardly my area of expertise though; read this for a much better case.) My own sense is that the 1999 Kosovo air campaign (bombing without without ground forces) – which limited NATO exposure and helped the Kosovo Liberation Army even the odds – would be a preliminary model. Nor is this a call for immediate intervention. Maybe the rebels can still win, and it looks like we still have time to wait and see. The best outcome of all would be a rebel victory without NATO involvement. But if Gadhafi wins and a huge bloodbath ensues, we must do something…