With the images of slaughter coming out of Syria and fresh evidence that the Assad regime may be using chemical weapons on its own citizens, it’s worth revisiting the case for intervention in Libya that Barack Obama made on March 28, 2011. At the time he spoke, Amnesty International reported that “hundreds and hundreds” had been killed in Libya. Others put the death toll at nearly 1,000. The United Nations—always more effective at counting deaths than at preventing them—puts the death toll in Syria above 100,000.
The scale of the slaughter in Libya, Obama argued, required the United States to intervene. “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and—more profoundly—our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are,” Obama declared. “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
The president decried the “false choice” put forward during the debate on intervention in Washington. “On the one hand, some question why America should intervene at all—even in limited ways—in this distant land,” he said. “They argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world, particularly when we have so many pressing needs here at home.”
He continued: “It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country—Libya—at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale.”
The president worried about the consequences of “empty words” in the face of such a slaughter, for international institutions and the United States. “So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.”
The president closed his speech on Libya with words about “what this action says about the use of America’s military power, and America’s broader leadership in the world, under my presidency.”
Obama said that he would never hesitate to use the military to protect Americans at home or abroad. But, he argued, there are times when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security—responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help. . . . Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.
And what about Syria? In defending intervention in Libya, President Obama boasted that he had “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” The world has been seeing those images out of Syria for months. Isn’t the slaughter there a challenge that threatens our common humanity and common security? Does the president now find it acceptable, as he did not 18 months ago, for the United States “to turn a blind eye to the atrocities in other countries?” To abide “violence on a horrific scale?” Were the red lines and calls for Bashar al-Assad’s ouster merely “empty words” that threaten the future credibility of those who voiced them? Is our willingness to “brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and—more profoundly—our responsibilities to our fellow human beings” in the face of mass killings no longer a “betrayal of who we are?”
Is the United States still different?