On March 28, 2011, when President Barack Obama addressed the nation to explain U.S. forces’ involvement in operations over Libyan skies, he made a compelling moral argument. In his speech, Obama illustrated the rapid chain of events that led to U.S. and international intervention and referred to Libya’s late dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s forces closing in on Benghazi by saying, “If we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”
Benghazi, noted the president, is a city of 700,000 people – the size of a big American city.
Expecting the worst, then, the rationale for U.S. intervention was driven by humanitarian considerations – a pre-emptive strike to save human lives from an anticipated massacre that had not happened yet and was in America’s power to avoid.
Fast forward 11 months. Syrian regime forces have already slaughtered thousands of innocent civilians – proving that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is no better than Qaddafi. Women and children have been killed by the regime–as Qaddafi had done and President Obama had recorded in his speech as proof of the righteousness of his decision.
Syrian forces have been conducting a slow-motion massacre of a similar scale in Homs, “a city nearly the size of Charlotte” just like Benghazi, for months now.
So where’s the conscience of the world, or does Syrian innocent blood stain less?
Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to explain the difference, by warning that arming the rebels would possibly play into al-Qaeda’s hands:
“We know al-Qaeda [leader Ayman al-] Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?” Clinton said. “If you’re a military planner or if you’re a secretary of state and you’re trying to figure out do you have the elements of an opposition that is actually viable, that we don’t see. We see immense human suffering that is heartbreaking.” But she added, this was not like Libya.
Thanks heaven for such astuteness – clearly, in Libya there was none of the above. All those who got Western support to topple Qaddafi were Geneva Convention abiding New England liberals – like this guy.
They got passing grades on human rights:
“Armed militia groups in Libya that formed along tribal lines after the ouster of the Muammar Qaddafi regime have turned on one another and now rule most of the country, torturing their opponents with impunity,” Amnesty International says.” It’s not just the revenge attacks or tribe-on-tribe feuding, but the gross human rights abuses that go unchallenged by Libya’s new government…”
And they have brought a measure of stability to the region:
“Weapons smuggled from Libya after the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s government are flowing through the surrounding region,” the president of the west African nation of Niger said Friday, “a development that threatens to destabilize a swath of the continent already struggling against ethnic unrest and a regional branch of al-Qaeda.”
Secretary Clinton is, no doubt, one of the savviest foreign policy minds in the current administration.
Still, when all is said and done, it is hard to spot the difference between the moral stain caused by the Benghazi massacre that did not happen and the Homs massacre that is happening.
If the argument is humanitarian, the president should live by the moral standards he admirably spelled out in his Libya speech. If you can’t intervene, then at least arm the rebels.
If the argument is one of viability, expediency, and consequences – a realist argument, shall we say? – then Secretary Clinton should be a tad more honest (she is not running for a second term, after all) and say: “In Libya we got carried away by our sentimental views of human suffering, and the heartbreak made us choose humanitarian concerns over their consequences. Since then, we got smarter – and this time we will not deploy anything until we know that a post-Assad Syria will not be a repeat of post-Qaddafi Libya.”
That would be an honest take on why U.S. (and European) Syria policy does not have the same moral urgency of March 2011.
So don’t hold your breath – a city like Charlotte will be overrun by bloodthirsty regime forces. A massacre that stains the conscience of the world might happen. Its consequences will reverberate across the region. And all that Western policymakers will do is speak, condemn, and extend Kofi Annan’s mandate.