The Sin of Omission: Leaving Libya to Its Fate

I’ve been converted to the theory that one of our most basic forms of bias is that against doing harm.  Allowing terrible things to happen right in front of us–even when we have the means to do something to stop it–provokes no comparable concern.

I imagine this predisposition explains why first Secretary of State Clinton, then President Obama insisted that the rolling massacres to which Libya has descended are “unacceptable.”  The moment I heard the Secretary of State say so, a thought occurred to me that has driven me almost to distraction: If we countenance this slaughter and have the means to mitigate, contain, or even decide it through intervention and don’t do so, then it must be “acceptable” by definition.

I wasn’t the only person who had some version of this thought.  Tom Scocca, blogging in Slate, thinks a President’s use of the term “unacceptable” an outright absurdity if not an outright inversion of what the word normally means:

“Unacceptable to whom? What does ‘acceptance’ mean, here? Did Qaddafi submit the bloodshed to the Oval Office for approval, but Obama refused to sign for it? Did someone give the Libyan protesters an opt-out box to click if they declined to be shot, or if they preferred to be shot later?

“Come statement-making time, the American presidency sounds like Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer in reverse: the things the president can’t change get deemed ‘unacceptable.'”

For Scocca the point of interest was precisely this uncanny consistency with which Presidents use this word for those outrageous states of affairs that…won’t be changed.  I’m interested in the current use of the word, because when an unhinged dictator like Colonel Muammar Gaddafi loudly announces that he will “cleanse Libya house by house” and draws upon foreign fighters–and according to one disturbing account taken by al-Jazeera even deluded migrant workers–to bring his threat to any plausible source of opposition, a state has perpetrated such a loss of legitimacy that even absolute monarchist Thomas Hobbes would have to embrace revolution.

Of course, President Obama and his Secretary of State are hardly alone in taking strong language but no action.  Last Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Colonel Gaddafi and told him the violence he was deliberately sowing “must stop immediately.”  Then there is this first paragraph of a report from today by the CNN wire staff:

“As clashes in the Libyan capital continued Friday between government security forces and anti-regime protesters, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters unequivocally: ‘The violence must stop.'”

Well, Ban is on the right side of the Libyan Civil War, and he’s saying the right things…and I can’t fault him for consistency either.  We can’t fairly fault the Secretary General when the constituent states of the UN fail to act.  It’s ironic, but leading the UN sounds like a lonely job.  The article further related that Ban estimated the death toll in the Libyan uprising since February 17th at over 1,000 and called on other governments “to do everything possible” to prevent violence against civilians.

300, 1,000, 2,000…In truth we have no idea how many people Gaddafi has sacrificed this week to his delusional bid to remain in power because we have little capacity to observe what he is doing.  Libya seethes under multiple apparitions of chaos.  There is chaos as some army units and pilots slaughter protesters and some defect to their cause.  There is chaos as mercenaries from Chad, Niger and Sudan fly into Libya with a broad mandate to stop the rebellion in the streets–some apparently shooting any civilian who goes outside.  There is protesters as mercenaries drag the bodies of the dead away in an attempt to hide the full death toll.  There is chaos as protesters become a fighting force, overrunning arsenals both with and without the assistance of army mutineers.  As a consequence of the preceding, there is chaos in the cities of Libya’s Mediterranean coast over which the protesters gain, then sometimes lose, then gain control again.

The apparent chaos actually follows multiple logics–the city of Benghazi’s longstanding grievances towards Tripoli, tribal loyalties, individual incentives to avoid eventual punishment by the protesters or to pursue the newly-available but rapidly-dwindling resources made available by the Gaddafi regime, the material prize of a greater share of Libya’s oil wealth, and varying levels of fear among all parties.  What is remarkable is how quickly Libya has passed through the stages of a civil war–at least so far and to appearances.

It isn’t coming fast-enough, however.  This brings us back to my point about our deep-seated bias against doing harm.  Some have argued that any sort of UN or NATO military intervention in Libya, from imposition of a no-fly zone to the establishment of beachhead safe zones or incursions into certain Libyan coastal towns (even just to deliver needed supplies like food to civilians) would expose the protesters to charges of foreign-backed subversion.  I think this political concern was plausible until Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was deposed.  Even if the revolution in Egypt hadn’t breathed such life into Middle Eastern pro-democracy protests generally, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s objection to Gaddafi’s brutality frames the argument for an intervention on humanitarian grounds.

It’s true that we cannot know whether other Middle Eastern anti-regime protests will suddenly escalate from violent to very violent in contexts where military intervention wouldn’t be feasible.  Some skeptics of intervention would say we would take blame for any ensuing politicide, thus incurring hostility from that country’s masses.  I say such warnings are a little strained, and miss the point: Libya is bleeding profusely right now.  If we just take some kind of military action whether to strike at loyalist positions, protect the protesters or to feed Libyans, we can save lives, issue a warning to other dictators in the region considering escalating their repression, and show participants in these movements in our deeds what the President implied with his January 28th speech on Egypt–that the US is with them on this one.


3 thoughts on “The Sin of Omission: Leaving Libya to Its Fate

  1. chae s. sone

    How can we help the brave freedom fighters in Lydia and other areas?

    The freedom fighters desperately need military, medical and food supplies in order to maintain their just struggle in this emergency situation.

    The friendly democratic nations can not openly participate in any military actions against the regime at this stage because of the international law.

    Air lift the freedom messages to the other side.

    However the freedom lovers outside the country or in the insurgent areas could send the necessary supplies to those who in the target areas, using balloons air lifting if applicable.

    So it is necessary for those who really want to help the human rights warriors try to get the assistance from other friendly supporters. The friendly groups should initiate to organize to implement these new tactics.

    It is possibly could be implemented immediately in the applicable areas. You could send your freedom messages to them too behind the frontlines.

    South Koreans are sending aid goods on balloons to the suffering brothers and sisters in the bankrupt workers paradise North Korea. Long time ago, I advocated this tactic to sent political messages to the North Korean freedom lovers.

    Libyan freedom fighters should consider these techniques.

    Talk to the South Korean freedom fighters that could assist you immediately. Contact the Korea Consulates or Korean business men to get the necessary advices on the Korean freedom fighters’ ideas.

    For the Koreans today come through the many bloody fights against Communists and the corrupt political regimes. Koreans scored well for their freedom fight. If Koreans did you Libyans and all Arabian brothers and sisters could do it. Let us to it now. The time is on our side.

    The Egyptian freedom fighters scored very well. You can do it too.

    Let us continue to fight for a better free world. You have friends in everywhere in the world.

    God bless you!

    1. liberalironist Post author

      I think air drops of supplies such as food, medical supplies and ammunition into Rebel-held areas in Libya is a good idea, and certainly less costly and logistically-complex than institution of a no-fly zone over the whole country. I still wish our and European governments would institute a no-fly zone, but with the exception of David Cameron in the United Kingdom (which apparently can’t field enough fighters to enforce a no-fly zone over a country as vast as Libya alone) it seems our governments can’t commit to any policy on this.

      Rebels are dying in air strikes on territories now well beyond Gaddafi’s reach on the ground; casualties have run into the dozens just in recent air strikes on arsenals around Benghazi, the Rebel headquarters. Air strikes have imposed a steep toll on the Rebels, and have almost certainly prolonged a civil war that has been rapid in historical terms and the trend in which still appears to favor the rebels. Air drops of supplies to Rebels in Cyrenaica is a good idea; that could at least prevent famine and give the Rebels back their momentum.

      As far as freedom messages are concerned, I’ve heard the Rebels based in secure areas don’t want an uprising in Tripoli until they are able to reach the capital in force. This requires the taking of the Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte and a further push west to meet up with the surrounded but so far little-threatened Rebels in the city of Misurata. They don’t want an uprising to precede them because they don’t believe they will be able to defend themselves in the capital. Past riots of protest in Tripoli resulted in repressive violence, and the momentum dissipated. Since that time, Gaddafi has apparently made good on his vow to “cleanse Libya house by house” of dissidents, arresting known dissidents in the capital. I don’t want to think about what’s happening to Libyans who get arrested by the regime under these circumstances.

  2. Ethel Hottel

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