If your 8 year old daughter’s principal announced that she was implementing a bold new anti-bullying policy aimed at protecting her students from being victims of harassment and violence, you would probably be happy, wouldn’t you?

But what if the one assigned the responsibility for enforcing this policy was the most notorious bully (let’s call him Tommy) in the entire school?  You would probably feel differently, wouldn’t you?  In fact, you might even prefer that there be no anti-bullying policy at all than one enforced by the biggest, strongest, and meanest kid around.

You would instantly recognize that an anti-bullying policy enforced by a bully like Tommy, much like a neighborhood watch program run by the mob, will serve as a cover and justification for more bullying.  Tommy and his friends will continue being able to bully whomever they want.  The situation will be even worse now, however, as they are now able to cloak their actions in a mantle of moral righteousness—now, they are picking on kids not for being “nerds” or “losers,” but in order to punish and prevent bullying.  You would think this way because you would rightly question Tommy’s intentions.  This cannot really be about protecting smaller and less popular students from harassment, you would think.

Much of the debate around the U.S.’s intervention in Libya has centered on whether or not countries have the right and/or obligation to intervene in other countries to prevent massacres and crimes against humanity and whether or not the potential loss of life in Libya merits the time, expense, and potential P.R. fall-out of a military operation.  What is almost never questioned, however, is whether the United States is actually doing what it says it is doing, that is, defending human life.

In other words, unlike the bully in the above analogy, prominent defenders of U.S. intervention in Libya such as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof contend that the U.S. is acting for the good.  He argues:

“Critics argue that we are inconsistent, even hypocritical, in our military interventions. After all, we intervened promptly this time in a country with oil, while we have largely ignored Ivory Coast and Darfur — not to mention Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.

We may as well plead guilty. We are inconsistent. There’s no doubt that we cherry-pick our humanitarian interventions.

But just because we allowed Rwandans or Darfuris to be massacred, does it really follow that to be consistent we should allow Libyans to be massacred as well? Isn’t it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?”

Before asking the question of whether it’s “better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none,” we should first ask whether this is even what we are doing in Libya.

One, on the very day President Obama announced his desire to use the U.S. military to “protect civilians” in Libya, this same military killed 40 Pakistani civilians.  Even more, in the month leading up to Obama’s announcement, the U.S. military, along with its NATO allies, killed 75 civilians in Afghanstian, 51 of whom were children.  If President Obama and the U.S. military have proven themselves to be thus far unwilling and/or unable to prevent the killing of Afghanistani and Pakistani civilians, shouldn’t we at least question the sincerity and intensity of their desire to protect Libyan civilians?

Two, while the United States is helping Libyan rebels overthrow the Qaddafi dictatorship, it is actively helping the dictatorship in Bahrain stay afloat, even though the Bahraini government has also killed protesting civilians and has even used U.S. supplied helicopters to fire on protestors—the very type of action committed by Qaddafi that supposedly led to U.S. intervention.

This “inconsistency” is not, as Kristof argues, the consequence of the United States not caring enough about the people of Bahrain.  In fact, it is not “inconsistent” at all.  Bahrain is not only home to the U.S.’s fifth naval fleet but is also a key ally to the dictatorial family that rules Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia is our friend not because they defend democracy or human rights, but because they supply us with cheap oil and are very friendly to U.S. corporate interests.  It seems as though the United States and our allies are allowed to kill civilians in pursuit of our self-defined political, economic, and security measures but our enemies are not.

Three, if the United States’ foreign policy were truly motivated by and dedicated to protecting civilians from being massacred by tyrannical regimes, it would seem as though they would also be intervening in the Ivory Coast, where 800 people were just massacred. While the UN has just recently begun to use military power to protect civilians, the United States is not directly involved in this action.

In light of all of this, it seems unlikely that the United States is in Libya for humanitarian purposes.  Instead, the U.S.’s presence in Libya is political, aimed at helping install a regime more favorable to U.S. interests, that is, one where U.S. corporations can make a ton of money and where the U.S. can build military bases.  Qaddafi’s decision to use such horrendous violence against his own people gave the United States an excuse to help orchestrate his overthrow.

How To Save A Life

But what is most absurd about this whole discussion and what most discredits President Obama’s professed concern for  “opposing violence, standing for universal values, and speaking out on the need for political change and reform” and “protecting civilians” is that military intervention is such an unimaginative and inefficient way to save human lives.

The first day of Operation Odyssey Dawn cost 100 million dollars for the U.S. missles alone.  Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assesments projects that Operation Odyssey Dawn will cost in between 400 and 800 million dollars but admits that the Operation could “easily pass the 1 billion mark…regardless of how well things go.”

If our goal is saving human lives, then spending 1 billion dollars preventing Qaddafi from killing even 100,000 of his own people (the prediction supplied by the Libyan rebels, which, it is not unreasonable to assume is an inflated number) is quite a strange way to go about it.  For example, 10.9 million children under five die in developing countires each year and hunger-related diseases cause 60 percent of these deaths; it would cost only 30 billion dollars a year to end world hunger, which is less than one half of one percent of all the world’s gross domestic product combined and much less than the 162 billion we spent in Iraq and Afghanistan in the year 2009 alone.  In other words, 60 times as many children die from hunger each year as could have died in Libya in the worst case scenario.  It would take less money to protect the lives of children who die from hunger than it would to protect those who could have died at the hands of Qaddafi, meaning we could actually save more lives by fighting hunger and its structural causes than we could fighting Qaddafi.

Why do we think our responsibility to protect potential victims of a dictator to be so much greater than our ability to protect children from starvation?  Why is it, that, when somebody is a victim of a dictator the United States doesn’t like, she is a “civilian;” when she is an Afghan child killed by a U.S. missile, she is “collateral damage,” and when she is an Indian or African child dying of starvation, she is nothing to us at all?

3 thoughts

  1. this is a great post. many are wondering why the western power /UN will intervene in such decisive ways in a select few places/ events. The cynic in me suspects that certain resources have something to do with this.

    It’s hard to make the case for intervention in one place, whilst keeping a hands-off approach in another; when, for all intents and purposes, both situations appear very similar.

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