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Will NATO's War in Libya Save Lives?

By Ivan Eland
April 12, 2011

Editor’s Note: The Obama administration is backing the Libyan rebels’ rejection of an African Union peace proposal that would have accompanied a cease-fire with negotiations for democratic reform; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Muammar Gaddafi’s departure is a non-negotiable condition for peace.

The rebels apparently hope that increased support from NATO and Gaddafi’s regional enemies will enable them to engineer his ouster even if it means more bloodletting, a risk that the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland warns the U.S. is encouraging with its policies:

There are many practical reasons why the U.S. military attack on Libya is a bad idea.

They include that Libya has nothing to do with American vital interests, that helping an unknown opposition is fraught with risks of getting something worse than Muammar Gaddafi, and that the United States was overstretched militarily (already conducting two other wars) and financially (suffering from huge budget deficits and national debt) — but the interventionists have claimed that bombing Gaddafi will save Libyans’ lives.

Of course, this last argument was always hard to square with U.S. military aid to allied Arab dictators, for example, the leaders of Yemen and Bahrain, who were also killing their people.

Another question should have arisen: Exactly how many Libyan civilians has Gaddafi actually killed? No one seems to know.

During the U.S. justification for bombing Serbia and Kosovo in 1999, the Clinton administration wildly exaggerated the body count of Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Albanians as a rationale for the air attack. Perhaps for this reason, no estimates of Gaddafi’s carnage have been floated this time around.

That aside, what if U.S. intervention ends up killing more people in the long term? That outcome would destroy the moral argument for the U.S. assault on Libya — not to mention future U.S. military attacks on “humanitarian” grounds.
An analysis of this matter is especially needed in light of the multiple “Arab Spring” revolts going on throughout the Middle East.

Prior to the Arab Spring, downtrodden used nonviolent protests to shame democracies into giving people their freedom (Mohandas Gandhi ending British rule in India) and ending racial segregation in the United States (Martin Luther King wanted the television images of redneck Southern cops beating up peacefully protesting African-American students to make the American public feel guilty about state-enforced racial separation) and South Africa (although Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress initially used violence, more peaceful resistance eventually won the day).

But the largely nonviolent fall of communist governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s showed that authoritarian establishments could also be similarly ended without resort to bloodshed.

Peaceful Arab Spring movements that toppled dictators in Egypt and Tunisia have reinforced that nonviolent protests are an effective tool against even harsh regimes.

Lastly, after decades of futile violence against a more powerful Israel, some in the Palestinian movement are now realizing that nonviolent protests, boycotts of Israeli goods, and attempts to get recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations General Assembly are more effective in shaming an Israeli democracy (at least for the Jews) into doing the right thing and giving up land for peace.

So in today’s world of widespread and instant communication, which facilitates such peaceful opposition, any U.S. help for a violent opposition group, no matter how heinous the dictator or worthy the opposition (we certainly don’t know that in Libya), sends the wrong signal to other opposition groups around the world.

Any U.S. support to any such violent group may encourage others to launch aggressive uprisings, no matter how feckless (and the Libyan opposition is certainly that), against dictators in an attempt to win covert or overt U.S. military support for their cause.

Thus, in the long term, the U.S. attack on Libya and other attacks for “humanitarian” purposes may actually cause more people to be killed around the world, attempting to do with violence what can now be done more effectively by peaceful means.

And history shows that U.S. military support for violent uprisings that it encourages is only sporadic. For example, after the First Gulf War in 1991, the United States stoked the Kurds and Shi’ite Arabs in Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein and then stood by and watched him slaughter them en masse.

During the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger had done the same thing to the Kurds.

Therefore, United States should be careful of the signals sent when encouraging violent opposition against unfriendly dictators or when actively supporting such rebellions with military attacks. In the end, more people may die as a result of U.S. “humanitarian” military actions than in their absence.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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