On Libya, the Arab revolt and the national interest

Anti-Gaddafi protests in Libya
Flickr, Messay Shoakena

The popular revolt in Libya began in Tunisia, gained force in Egypt, and is continuing its spread across much of the Arab world.

Libya is different mostly in that we are supporting the rebellion militarily, which has raised other questions.

The Arab revolt appears to be re-writing the political power grid in the Middle East and yet some continue to argue that none of this is in our national interest. Why then has Egypt been one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid?

Those who contend the Arab revolt has nothing to do with our national interests appear to have their heads in the desert sand. Geopolitically speaking.

But as a humanitarian issue, if this popular revolt continues to spread and grow, as some think it will, one question we need to ask is if we would intervene again.

Would we take action in another Arab country if there is a similar risk of large-scale, violent government retaliation? Is there a moral obligation, a precedent being set here, that will shift the discussion beyond the ever-debated political calculus focused simply on whether or not it is in our interest?

That’s what I wondered after hearing the question being asked by NPR’s Jackie Northam in a report today, Will U.S. policy in Libya spread to other nations?

During the opening days of the revolutionary movement sweeping through the Arab world, the Obama administration was criticized for standing on the sidelines. Officials argued the U.S. did keep an eye on unfolding events in places like Egypt and Tunisia, but stressed that it was up to the protesters to take ownership of the revolution and their future….

There are ongoing uprisings in several countries in the region, including Yemen, Bahrain and Syria — where government forces have killed unarmed protesters. But there hasn’t been talk, at least publicly, about an intervention. Administration officials say that’s in part because the violence in those countries is not on the same scale as Libya.

So how many protesters will have to be killed to make it morally unacceptable? Would we intervene in nations that we consider allies, or at least friendly hosts to our military (like Bahrain) if it gets too violent?

Another concern is that the destabilization of Libya will reverberate throughout much of northern Africa with rebel armies free to spill out across borders into Niger, Chad, Sudan, Darfur, Burkina Faso. That’s the possibility raised by Alex de Waal in the Christian Science Monitor:

One reason why Africans worry about Libya is that they see the possibility of a protracted civil war with multiple power centres, which destabilizes the entire Sahelian region….

Much of Libya is now ungoverned. That is particularly true of southern Libya. There has been little attention to the towns of the south, such as Sebha and Kufra, with no international correspondents there. These places are matters of great concern to neighboring governments such as Niger, Chad, and Sudan, because these towns have served as the rear base for armed rebellions in their countries, and rebel leaders still reside there.

So things could get worse before they get much better. Still, it is difficult to imagine the international community sitting on its hands while Gaddafi slaughtered his own people. As I’ve written before, there are times when a military response appears to be the only method to preserve life and protect human rights.

Robert Kaplan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, is much more realpolitick. He appears to see no legitimate humanitarian or pro-democracy argument worth making here. Kaplan says all our actions should be guided solely by whether or not it serves our own national interest.

Democracy is part of America’s very identity, and thus we benefit in a world of more democracies. But this is no reason to delude ourselves about grand historical schemes or to forget our wider interests.

Hmmm. It seems to me another way to look at all this is that we helped create the Arab revolt and the need for our military intervention due to a prior delusion — the delusion that we could support dictatorships and allow oppression so long as it served our wider interests.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.