Measuring Interest Against the Need for Action: Why Libya and Not Darfur?

I was driving through town a couple of months ago listening to the radio when I heard that the US was involved in strikes against Libya. Now, I am familiar with Libya and its ruler, Qaddafi.   After all, he was in power back when I was a kid. I remember reading the circa-1985 headlines on newspapers at the grocery store checkout and his was among the offending names: Qaddafi, Marcos, Noriega, etc. As a tangent, how much has time changed when I learn all about celebrities–and almost nothing about current world events--going through the checkout line now? But, I digress.

As I was saying, Qaddafi was already on my ‘bad guy’ radar, but I wasn’t sure what he had done recently that necessitated interventions by the US and our NATO allies. So, I did some research.   It would seem that the Libyan people were inspired by the Egyptian citizens’ protests geared toward establishing a democratic government in their country. Hoping for a similar outcome, the Libyan people began protesting, too. However, the Libyan protesters found themselves being attacked by their leader, Qaddafi. This drew the attention of the United Nations, who mandated a No-Fly zone in the region. Therefore, Operation Odyssey Dawn began, in which the United States joined British and French forces to enforce the No-Fly Zone using air strikes and other displays of force.   I have to say, Odyssey Dawn does not sound like a hard-hitting military offensive–in fact, taken literally, it sounds like the beginning of a lengthy, meandering expedition. Hopefully, that is not the case.

Back to my point–the United States, along with allied forces from around the world, has actively engaged with the ruler of Libya because he was harming his own people. Sounds good:   the United States is all about sticking it to bullies, and rightly so. Then again, I ask, where do we draw the line? If we actively engaged with every foreign leader who was a threat to his own people, we would run out of forces long before we ran out of evil tyrants. Is the US really taking on the job of World Wide Defender of Oppressed Nations?

I vividly remember people who opposed the elder George Bush’s involvement in Iraq fuming that we could not protect every country in the world, and that if Saddam Hussein wasn’t actively hurting us we should not get involved. Similar arguments were made about our role in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the mid-1990s, during the Clinton Administration. In a recent statement regarding our actions against Libya, President Obama said, “There are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hand of their government . . . we must measure our interests against the need for action.” My biggest question after hearing this was “Why Libya and not Darfur?”

Nearly 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur since the current conflict began back in 2003. After visiting Darfur in 2004, former Secretary of State Colin Powell maintained that widespread genocide was most definitely taking place. In fact, within days of our assault on Libya, the IDP (Internally Displaced Peoples) of Darfur urgently requested that the UN take similar action in their own situation. As of last week, the UN announced that the number of IDP in Darfur had reached one million. And let’s not forget that back in 1994 800,000 Rwandan people were slaughtered over a mere 100-day period. Why didn’t Darfur and Rwanda get immediate action from the UN? Why weren’t American forces pledged to help remove the threat to the people living there?

Perhaps it has to do with the whole ‘measuring our interest against the need for action’ thing: if a region has nothing to offer our interests, we do not feel the need for action.   I shudder to think this is the case. As I often do when facing a difficult question, I posed my ‘Why Libya and not Darfur’ question to my friends on Facebook. I love that I have friends who lean to the left and others who lean to the right, with many dispersed between the two viewpoints. This diversity ensures that I get a wide range of responses. Some immediately suggested that oil played a key role: Libya and Iraq have it; Darfur and Rwanda do not.   Others suggested that skin color played a role. I am loathe to think this is the case; I would hope we are above racial profiling when it comes to protecting the oppressed.   Unfortunately, the more I researched the disparity in US/global response to Libya versus Darfur, the less I seemed to find to offer a tangible, objective standard by which these situations are measured prior to military intervention.

Ultimately, I do not begrudge the Libyan people their right to live freely, without fear of attack from their rulers. Ideally, all citizens of the world would be afforded the same right. I just find it frustrating and disheartening that we have no clear-cut process for determining which population groups receive our support and protection, and which do not.