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Wanted: Humanitarians at Home

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
April 6, 2011
Daily Beast


Humanitarian interventionists without a cause: that's what they were until they found the fires of hell in Libya. Iraq, the old humanitarian banner, was worn out, Afghanistan never quite caught on, and somehow today's humanitarians never flew into rages over the moral horrors in the Sudan and Ivory Coast. But Libya and its outcast monster, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, who threatened to “massacre” Libyan rebels—that was red meat. America's politicians and journalists could not resist either, especially when left and right united in its pursuit—President Obama's fiery aide Samantha Power and neoconservative defense expert Paul Wolfowitz, and star-crossed Senators John Kerry and John McCain.

And it looked so easy, didn't it? A little antiseptic no-fly zone, and bye-bye colonel. But while all hoped for Gaddafi's early departure, the price already has been very dear. Libya devoured leadership oxygen from what truly mattered: the upheavals in the rest of the Mideast (where, unlike in Libya, the United States has truly vital interests), and America itself, where future generations perish slowly in neglected public schools that offer no hope, where working Americans are thrown from their unaffordable homes into the streets, and where millions of Americans will never have jobs. Already, more than half a billion dollars they deserved for their survival has gone to Libya instead.

Frankly, I don't feel my position is at all inhumane. From the outset, I favored Washington urging our Arab and European friends to take the military action they deemed necessary and to take it immediately, with the United States in a supporting role. They are Libya's neighbors, and they each and all had the military capacity to start no-fly operations. But they, like our own humanitarian interventionists, insisted both that action be taken ASAP and that only America could lead the way. It went unmentioned, for example, that the Egyptian, French, Italian, and British air forces, which were right there geographically, were much superior to Gaddafi's and could have done most of the job themselves. A bunch of con men, they all cried that they didn't have enough military punch. They had enough, despite the fact that almost all of our European allies have slashed their military spending over the last decade, deeply and cynically, in the full and correct expectation that Washington would more than fully make up the difference.

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