It’s pretty simple, really – we’re there because it’s easy.
Easy is relative, of course, but Libya as a target for intervention has a lot going for it. A comically distinct leader with a history of deliberate regional destabilization and brutality, a wave of democracy sweeping across its North African neighbors, a defiant but outgunned domestic uprising, an eager coalition of international partners, a clear humanitarian disaster in the making, the unprecedented approval of the Arab League to take action against one of their own members, and the fact that whole business can be conducted via NATO’s 60-year-old military alliance using our allies’ airbases in the Mediterranean.
It’s just too easy.
We don’t even need to put troops on the ground, just fighter jets, gunships, cruise missiles, and drones.
We get to use up ordnance that was reaching its expiration date, give our pilots a little bit of combat practice, and generally make ourselves feel better about the Middle East and our role in it.
Jon Stewart explained this last night in terms of a ledger sheet and, grim as it may sound, there is an undeniable truth to the reality of the situation. The benefits of our actions must be weighed against their costs. It’s ugly, but it’s true.
Are we doing the right thing in Libya? I believe the answer to be yes.
Why then, are we not doing the right thing in places like Cote d’Ivoire, Bahrain or Syria?
Because it’s a whole lot more difficult in those places.
Syria and Bahrain are tangled messes that require a delicate negotiation of allies, potential allies, neighbors, repercussions, and regional instability that could severely impact our interests in the area.
Whereas Bahrain and Syria have close ties to other Middle East countries, Libya has steadily angered and alienated everyone else in the Arab-speaking world. (This is one of the main reasons he has given so much money to African regimes and the African Union - Qaddafi has spent billions on dictators across Africa in order to ensure their support for his various machinations. )
Right now Cote d’Ivoire is in the early stages of a civil war. How many of their neighboring countries are clamoring for our help to mitigate the thousands of fleeing refugees? What has the AU done to stop that conflict (or any other, for that matter)? Almost nothing – instead they rail against intervention. Gbagbo, the former president of Cote d’Ivoire, refuses to leave office despite having lost the election. Instead he is unleashing his military on the supporters of his opponent Outtara. Simultaneously he has vigorously supported Gaddafi and denounced any and all western intervention. (Interesting sidenote – in addition to his links to Gaddafi, Gbagbo has strong ties to some big name conservative Evangelical Christian movers and shakers in the US).
Furthermore, the scale of brutality in Bahrain and Syria hasn’t yet begun to approach what we’ve seen in Libya (though Syria should be watched closely – this Friday after evening prayers things will almost certainly get interesting). Getting NATO or Arab league approval for an action in Syria isn’t going to happen, and unilateral American intervention in the middle east went out with GWB.
In the case of Bahrain we have to weigh our actions within the context of our own involvement (the US 5th Fleet is docked in Bahrain) and the proximity of Iran, the entanglement of Saudi Arabia, and the fact that we’d be hard-pressed to achieve anything truly constructive by getting involved. It’s also not near Europe, and it’ll have to get a lot worse before Europeans would even think of getting involved. (And really, why would Europeans get involved? It doesn’t really impact them in the way that Libya does.)
So. American intervention in Libya. Easy.
Everywhere else. Messy and problematic.