Shortly after the first U.S. cruise missiles fell in Libya on March 19, 2011, signaling the start of the seven-month NATO campaign to “protect civilians” by dropping bombs on that country, I wrote that even if we reduced our moral standards to those of Osama bin Laden, the murder of even one Libyan in the name of “human rights” must still be considered immoral. With the declared end of NATO’s “Operation Unified Protector” on Oct. 31, 2011, it is worth revisiting the morality of the so-called humanitarian intervention in Libya.
There are those who might argue that morality really had nothing to do with the U.S. involvement in the bombing of Libya, that the real reason for war was to gain access to Libyan resources and lucrative business contracts for Western companies, or even that it was a simple propaganda ploy to help make it seem that the U.S. really is on the “right” side of the Arab Spring after propping up Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and other dictators for so long. However, because the official justification for war given by the U.S., U.N., and NATO was primarily based on the protection of civilians (at its heart, an issue of morality), rather than national interests or even so-called “security” issues, it is worthwhile to take the warmongers at their word.
One such warmonger, liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, is fairly representative of those who championed the U.S. intervention in Libya for humanitarian reasons, and he was an early cheerleader of the bombing of Libya as a moral cause. In an op-ed from late August titled “‘Thank You, America!'”, Kristof gushed with joy over how many Libyans he had met who were quick to declare their thanks to the U.S. for bombing their country. (It should be noted that the people whose side we choose to support in any military campaign generally do appreciate it, at least for a while. The families of the people we kill on the other side of the conflict, however, tend to harbor a lifelong animosity toward us). Kristof concluded this article with what he called “a lesson of Libya” which is that “It is better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none.”
Kristof has been noticeably silent on Libya in recent weeks (as of this writing, despite major developments in Libya such as findings of torture, brutal executions, and other human rights violations by Libyan rebels, culminating in the murder of Gadhafi himself, Kristof hasn’t even mentioned Libya in his column since Sept. 8). Now that the reality that war is always hell has set in, perhaps Kristof has rethought the morality of murdering some people to save others. In any case, I continue to wonder how someone like Kristof, who in his personal life most likely has a fairly normal sense of morality, can be so seduced by the violence of the state as to passionately support dropping hundreds of thousands of pounds of high explosives on people halfway around the world in the name of human rights.
One clue to this mystery of human nature comes from Kristof himself in an article about a Libyan source involved in the rebel movement. Kristof describes a moral dilemma in which the source asked him for assistance in publishing a political video online. Kristof wrote: “I agreed to do so but asked about [his] family. He was in hiding, but what if the government took revenge on his pregnant wife and three children? I didn’t want that on my conscience….” When Kristof was faced with a choice as an individual that would potentially put a woman and three children at risk, it weighed significantly on his conscience. However, when he later considered the risk to the 6.4 million people who live in Libya were their country turned into a war zone, his conscience apparently had nothing to say when he used his widely read column to push for and then support the war in Libya. We are still learning the results of that war in terms of human suffering, but the costs are clearly significant in a country that has been the subject of more than 10,000 “strike missions” by NATO aircraft over the course of this short war.
How could Kristof feel morally responsible for what might happen to a single small family if he were to post a rebel’s video online yet feel no moral qualms about the thousands of people who would inevitably be killed in a bombing campaign of this scope? In the first case, the risk to the family would come from an unelected government with which Kristof had no ties. In the second, the risk to the population of Libya would come from Kristof’s own government, to which he pays taxes and has direct influence over through the U.S. electoral process. Logically, Kristof would therefore have had less responsibility for what happened to the Libyan family than he would for what happened to the far greater numbers of people who were at risk in a bombing campaign. One major difference in these two situations is that in the first, Kristof had to make a choice personally, whereas in the second, he could leave all actual decisions and actions to someone else (the U.S. government and its employees). In my view, this abdication of responsibility from the individual to government does not allow us to ignore the moral consequences of our actions.
In the early stages of the U.S. military intervention in Libya, President Obama stated that “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.” There is no way to know if those images of slaughter and mass graves would have occurred without the U.S. and NATO intervening in Libya. What we can know for certain, however, is that by bombing a foreign country, we are directly responsible for the deaths of many people. We also must accept some level of moral responsibility for the actions of those Libyans we chose to support with our bombing campaign. Their crimes are now ours as well. Some people will argue that the outcome in Libya will be worth the death and destruction we caused; while I am not one of them and I feel great shame for what my government has done in my name, I also respect the right of people to disagree. It is not for me to decide for the society as a whole how many people it deems acceptable to kill in order to save how many other people. What I cannot condone is the whitewashing of a war and a complete lack of compassion for its victims. For a war sold on the basis of morality, moral questions still remain.
If our government must go to war, let its leaders not laugh and cheer over the deaths of human beings; murder is murder and always immoral, even if one thinks it is done for a “good cause.” More importantly, let the actions of our government weigh heavily on our collective conscience, regardless of our own views on the legitimacy of any particular war. We murdered people in Libya. We saved other people. Unlike the cowards who cheer for war while ceding responsibility for its tragic consequences to their government, each of us must decide for ourselves how the moral calculus works out: Would we, as individuals, kill for this cause if we had to make each mortal choice personally?