March 25th, 2011
10:43 AM ET

Don't forget: we stopped a massacre

Tom Malinowski is the Washington Director for Human Rights Watch. Previously, he was special assistant to President Bill Clinton and senior director for foreign policy speechwriting at the National Security Council.

I talked to Tom this morning about humanitarian intervention in Libya. “Obama did it right,” Tom says, “He acted before calamity happened, and as a result, he ironically gets less credit.”

Here’s what else Tom had to say:

“We shouldn’t forget what would have almost certainly have happened in Benghazi had we not acted. There would have been a humanitarian catastrophe.

“We [Human Rights Watch] have gotten a look at the arsenal that Gadhafi was racing up the road to Benghazi and it was quite a considerable amount of firepower: tanks, artillery, rocket systems and anti-personal and anti-tank mines.

“It is clear that had he been given the chance to unleash that firepower on a city crowded with civilians there undoubtedly would have been a lot of carnage just from the battle itself.

“Then had Gadhafi succeeded in taking Benghazi, there would have been a massive campaign of repression and retribution in addition launched against those who supported the opposition. A large number of people would have been arrested, disappeared and possibly executed.

“We believe that to be the case in part because of Gadhafi’s track record, in part because he essentially said that he would do this - he said that he would show no mercy to the people of Benghazi in the east - and because he would have had to do this to retain control of these eastern cities in which the entire population rose up against him.

“Gadhafi does not have enough loyal security forces to flood every town in eastern Libya with troops and police around the clock. The only way he could have restored his authority in the east was through terror - restoring the sense of fear that people used to have, and which they lost when they kicked Gadhafi’s security forces out a few weeks ago.

“Everybody is skipping over this important point because the massacre didn’t happen. The sacking of Benghazi was the dog that didn’t bark.

“The lesson of this intervention is that Presidents get more credit for stopping atrocities after they have begun than for having prevented them before they started.

“In Bosnia you had years of massacres that everybody saw and which galvanized a passionate international campaign to promote a humanitarian intervention.

“When Bill Clinton launched the intervention, everybody could see and feel the difference that it made. With Libya, we didn’t go through that stage of seeing a massacre and then demanding an intervention and then being satisfied that the world was responding.

“The media narrative has just jumped ahead without really acknowledging what was achieved by the initial intervention.”

For more in this same vein, see Nick Kristof writing in The New York Times:

Doubts are reverberating across America about the military intervention in Libya. Those questions are legitimate, and the uncertainties are huge. But let’s not forget that a humanitarian catastrophe has been averted for now and that this intervention looks much less like the 2003 invasion of Iraq than the successful 1991 gulf war to rescue Kuwait from Iraqi military occupation.

This is also one of the few times in history when outside forces have intervened militarily to save the lives of citizens from their government. More commonly, we wring our hands for years as victims are massacred, and then, when it is too late, earnestly declare: “Never again.”

In 2005, the United Nations approved a new doctrine called the “responsibility to protect,” nicknamed R2P, declaring that world powers have the right and obligation to intervene when a dictator devours his people. The Libyan intervention is putting teeth into that fledgling concept, and here’s one definition of progress: The world took three-and-a-half years to respond forcefully to the slaughter in Bosnia, and about three-and-a-half weeks to respond in Libya.

Granted, intervention will be inconsistent. We’re more likely to intervene where there are also oil or security interests at stake. But just as it’s worthwhile to feed some starving children even if we can’t reach them all, it’s worth preventing some massacres or genocides even if we can’t intervene every time.

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. mike

    Cudos to The President and his right minded foreign policy; to hell w/ manipulation. Life is not the board game Risk or Monopoly.

    March 25, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Reply
    • Larry

      cudos yes, but I'm still very torn over this. Dp we pick and choose who to help, when and why soley based on our own interests? you could argue this is our prerogative but then it will always be based on prerogatives of the party in power and more based on what's in "our best interest" and that just seems flawed

      March 25, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    This is a good reason for the coalition forces not only to justify their military action but to glorify their aggression as well.

    March 25, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Reply
    • Not logical

      Oh Yea! Libya rebel commander Abdel-Hakim al Hasidi who admitted to an Italian newspaper Il Sole about his AL QAEDA and had earlier fought against 'the foreign invasion' in Afghanistan is now forever indebted to the USA and will return the favor by slamming a couple of planes into US buildings sometimes in the future.

      We, the bystander, the non American watch this revelation with amazement. Siding with your bitter enemy to rid yourself of another old enemy and in the process create another more dangerous situation for yourself. Ha Ha

      This is no fabrication, read the BBC news.
      Idriss Deby Itno, Chad's president, said al-Qaeda had managed to pillage military arsenals in the Libyan rebel zone. The group had acquired arms, "including surface-to-air missiles, which were then smuggled into their sanctuaries". So there are rebels within the rebel groups who are arming themselves to pursue their own battle. Meanwhile Operation Odyssey is making it possible for them to entire Gadaffi held cities!

      US and British government sources said Mr al-Hasidi was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG, which killed dozens of Libyan troops in guerrilla attacks around Derna and Benghazi in 1995 and 1996.

      Earlier this month, al-Qaeda issued a call for supporters to back the Libyan rebellion, which it said would lead to the imposition of "the stage of Islam" in the country.British Islamists have also backed the rebellion. It is not clear how large a group the radicals are. No doubt if there are any boots placed on the ground to enforce the UN resolution they can expect to be killed by these rebels. When Gadaffi talked about Al Qaeda linked groups being involved in the rebellion he was not wrong. No doubt this group will be mindful of the UN resolution and the duty of responsibility to protect civilians.

      March 27, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Reply
      • thecnnguy

        The success of Al-Qaeda rely on the continued suppression, injustice, and poverty of the Muslim population. That is why they never gain much support in countries like Malaysia or Turkey. If the Arab uprisings can topple these terribly corrupt regimes to promote better social economic situations and raise the living standards of ordinary Arabs, why will they go radical? If you can get a comfortable job, home, education, why will you take up arms? Al-Qaeda will be like the white supremist movements in prosperous Arabs, just an insignificant group of people yelling extreme words but with no power to execute them.

        March 29, 2011 at 7:07 am |

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