Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday about the ongoing unrest in Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted "no option is off the table." In other words, American military intervention is very much still possible. Like most Americans, I too want to see the Libyan people's suffering alleviated. The systematic brutalization that characterizes Muammar Gaddafi's rule, such as ordering his military to search every house and hunt down protesters like "rats" and "cockroaches," is abhorrent. Our desire to assist, however, should be matched with practical assessments of what methods are most effective.
First, we must draw a meaningful link between interests and outcomes. Scholars of America's sordid Cold War history in the Muslim world (a problematic construct, for want of a better one) are well-aware of a past replete with military interventions, botched coups, and covert action programs spanning Iran (1953), Egypt (1956), Syria (1957), Lebanon (1958), and elsewhere. Even if some U.S. interventions succeeded, it was difficult to predict or anticipate under what conditions harmful outcomes would emerge.
Assisting those in need remains, in principle, morally justifiable. The primary question, nonetheless, is whether military action is best suited to such a task. The historical record vividly illustrates that good intentions are not always enough. We cannot mold and shape reality to our liking. Our liberal values tell us little about the most effective means for advancing them, especially given the practical limitations and unintended consequences that arise in the course of armed humanitarian intervention.
Furthermore, intervening in Libya may be psychologically satisfying for many well-meaning political activists and chest-thumping American jingoists, but we desperately need to have an adult conversation about U.S. interests and its connection to the legitimate use of American power. We have learned nothing from the terrorist attacks of September 11th if we ignore the fact that it is in America's interest to reduce the amount of anti-American radicalism that fuels terrorism. To reduce anti-American radicalism we must: acknowledge that it exists; understand what fuels it; and, understand how our actions are perceived in a foreign context.
For example, despite the patriotic delusion that Libyans would greet us as liberators, success for the United States in Libya would be difficult. The United States would have to overcome the widespread perception that it seeks to weaken and divide the Muslim world by yet again invading their land and bombing their people, as well as the overwhelming perception that the intervention in Iraq — despite Saddam's brutality — was thoroughly illegitimate. Moreover, despite our constant invocation that we are the greatest democracy in the world, the fact remains that we have various off-shore penal colonies, where Muslim prisoners are not afforded the vaunted protections of our civil liberties. Given these beliefs — real or not — would Muslims — not just Libyans — view our intervention as wholly altruistic?
Finally, American policymakers seem to be confusing engagement with endorsement. For example, contrasting the situation in Libya with the unrest in Egypt, clearly the United States is not willing to risk a break with the Egyptian regime, but engagement does not require us to provide Cairo's unaccountable police state with massive transfer payments while they imprison, torture, and kill political dissidents, some of who are liberal and Western-oriented. After all, part of the problem with the perception of America in the Muslim world is Washington's double standard in calling for more open civil societies without actually supporting them in countries like Egypt, where anti-terrorism laws are often used as a cover to suppress threats to the ruling regime.
Unlike in Egypt, the United States has severely limited options when it comes to Libya. America has fewer strings it can pull behind the scenes to gently remove Gaddafi from power. Ironically, America's 30-year backing of Mubarak's regime — to the tune of nearly $60 billion — is what provided the leverage that helped remove him from power. Today, the regime in Cairo is a complex set of institutions that revolve around its military, and it remains firmly intact despite Mubarak's departure. Time will tell whether a genuine revolution will transpire.
America can and should stand on the side of the tens of millions around the world longing for political freedom and economic liberty. One of the easiest ways to do that is by not squandering taxpayer money on fruitless schemes to prop up third world dictators.