Moral Preening

    There is a sad familiarity to the posturing taking place on all sides in the Middle East. With Libyan dictator Muammar Khadafy using brute force – murdering untold numbers of civilians in a desperate attempt to retain power (something that Mubarak in Egypt or Ben Ali of Tunisia did not do) – there have been persistent calls for the United States to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Such a tactic would effectively deprive Khadafy of his ability to use air power to strafe and kill his targets, which now represents his greatest strategic advantage over the insurgents.

     President Obama, as is his wont, has been non-committal, preferring to refer this matter to the “international community” – cowardice masked as prudence. Living in fear of being accused of imperialism – a charge that he himself has levied against past American foreign policy – Obama has essentially vitiated America’s role as leader of the free world and as a moral force. In a very lawyerly fashion, he is seeking to dot every “I” and cross every “T” before acting, or instead of acting, and wishes to hide behind the cover of “consensus.” Well, “consensus,” as Margaret Thatcher once said, has never inspired, rallied or guided anyone, and it is the exact opposite of true leadership. It is an epic failure, on a par with Obama’s indifference to the revolution in Iran in the summer of 2009.

      That is not to say that a no-fly zone is necessarily a good idea. It is a relatively benign process, given America’s superior air power, and would likely cause Khadafy to refrain from using his jets and helicopters on its murderous runs. But the hesitation that grips many in the West, and even more Jews, is the great unknown: who are these insurgents and rebels ? It is taken for granted that Khadafy is a thug, a murderer, a primitive peasant who does not present as sane; but who’s to say that he will not be replaced by someone crazier, more violent, and even more anti-American and anti-Israel ? (How can one be more anti-Israel than Khadafy ? Answer: by embracing the suicidal dimension of Islamic politics. For all his insanity and enmity, Khadafy is not self-destructive, as are the new breed of Islamic radicals.)

     But there is one compelling factor that argues in favor of a no-fly zone: morality. A no-fly zone stopped the carnage in Bosnia and Iraq in the 1990’s, but in both cases was only enforced after thousands were killed. In fact, that is the pathetic pattern of Western (including American) responses to genocide: inaction, or some action after it is too late, followed by hand-wringing and moral preening.

     For all the talk about the preciousness of life, human rights, heinous deeds that are deemed “unacceptable” (a favorite term of both Obama and Hillary Clinton), and cries of “never again,” the talk is just hollow, phony to its core. The world was silent while Turks massacred Armenians in 1915, while Stalin and Mao murdered millions under their despotic rule, while Nazis exterminated six million Jews and several million others, while Pol Pot killed millions of Cambodians and Idi Amin hundreds of thousands of Ugandans. The world was effectively silent while Rwandans and Darfurians were brutalized. The list goes on. And most of the massacres were followed by empathetic speeches piously intoned about our moral failures, by ceremonies commemorating the victims and memorials constructed as an everlasting testament to their dignity, and fund-raisers to ensure that human consciousness be elevated enough that there are no recurrences of these travesties. All until the next one, when the process is repeated.

     We are much better at honoring the dead than preventing their deaths in the first place. Too often, we would rather grieve over the murdered than defend the living.

     Part of this comes from a natural hesitation to use force, which unfortunately is usually the only way to thwart the evil acts of the wicked. The Jews during the story of Purim took up arms to defend themselves; they did not form focus groups or seek to negotiate with their enemies. Often, those who are most passionate about defending the innocent victims of genocide are the most squeamish about using military might to defend those same victims. Years ago, a young activist tried to enlist my support for a rally to mobilize people on behalf of the suffering victims of Darfur. When I asked the purpose of the rally, she said it was “to raise consciousness.” When I persisted and asked what policy objectives she had in mind after consciousness was duly raised, she claimed not to understand my point. I explained: “Do you want the American government to send troops to Darfur ? I could understand  and support the deployment if  that is the goal, because that would save lives. But what is your objective ?” She answered that she is against using military force to solve problems, and just wanted to “raise consciousness.” I declined to participate in what I construed to be a vacuous exercise designed to make the participants feel good about themselves, but would not – and did not – have any meaningful result.

      Certainly, legitimate questions are always raised about the propriety of the sacrifice asked of Americans, in blood and treasure, to protect innocents around the globe. Is it worth the life a 21-year-old American to save a Darfurian, a Libyan, an Iraqi or an Afghan – and especially when their efforts are not always appreciated by the rescued ? It is obviously a tribute to the selflessness of the American soldier – all volunteers – but is it worth it ?

      One who asks the question that way has to deal with its implication in this context: was it worth the life of an American to save a Jew during the Holocaust, to divert even one bomber to bomb a crematorium or a railway to prevent genocide ? If we are to decry what happened “While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy” (Arthur Morse) or annually to denounce “The Abandonment of the Jews” (David Wyman), our premise must be that the American had some moral obligation not to be apathetic to Jews and not to abandon people in need. But what is the provenance of that premise ?

    The premise has to be the moral obligation of every person not to allow innocent blood to be shed, and to support policies that would effectively preclude genocide and punish the murderers. One can’t say that the US should have intervened during the Holocaust but not during Mao’s purges or Pol Pot’s rampages (the latter facilitated, in fact, by America’s withdrawal from Vietnam.) That is not morally tenable. Either do something when it matters, or stop the hand-wringing after the fact. I suppose distinctions can be made between saving innocent civilians who are friends of America (or neutral) and innocent civilians who are enemies of America. They are not so innocent, and it would be counter to American interests to protect the lives of those who want to take American lives. In effect, though, it is a distinction without a difference, because mass murderers do not discriminate based on the political views of the victims – especially when they are being bombed from the air.

    The “international community,” to whom Obama has made America’s moral standing hostage, is largely composed of gangsters, hypocrites and tyrants.  Deference to them is an excuse for inaction, but will surely result in flowery eulogies read beautifully from a teleprompter and a flood of crocodile tears that might force us all into arks. Undoubtedly, by the time a no-fly zone is instituted, if at all, lives that might have been saved will have been lost, and American influence in the region will have been further depleted. And we will be again basking in our illusory goodness because of our genuine sorrow over the past and our sincere hopes for the future. It is always the present that requires action and challenges the human being.

    A no-fly zone over Libya should be a no-brainer, and the desirability of expelling a murderous dictator (even one with oil) should be elementary for all but moral preeners and posturers.

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3 responses to “Moral Preening

  1. ‘A no-fly zone stopped the carnage in Bosnia and Iran in the 1990’s, but in both cases was only enforced after thousands were killed.”

    The Srebrenica massacre (the worst mass murder in Europe since World War II) occurred two years after the no-fly zone was put into place. After Srebrenica (and the Sarajeveo market bombing), NATO escalated its air strikes and that is what led to the Dayton Agreement and the end to the war in a matter of months.

    • I’m not sure how you can interpret “‘A no-fly zone stopped the carnage in Bosnia” to mean that the no-fly zone implemented in Bosnia was in fact illogical and ineffective.

      In any event, I’m also not sure what you mean that the no-fly was on the one hand enforced, but on the other no action was taken against its violators. NATO took action against violators by shooting down Serbian planes that violated it. NATO did not take more action than that, because it wasn’t necessary to escalate NATO’s involvement to enforce the no-fly and NATO wasn’t looking to do more than that. This is exactly the situation that is occurring in Libya right now.

      Also, while the UN implemented the no-fly zone, it was NATO that enforced it, under UN authorization “to take all necessary measures to ensure compliance” with the no-fly. NATO had the authorization to escalate their enforcement had they felt that it was necessary (and didn’t even bother getting authorization in Kosovo later on), but they didn’t. Blaming the UN is always fun and usually not something you can go wrong with. Here you were.

      All of this is completely irrelevant to your point though. The no-fly was in place as atrocities were being committed in Bosnia. It certainly did not stop them and it’s just false to say it did. Nor is this surprising. Killing the males of Srebrenica did not require airplanes. It also did not stop Saddam’s war crimes, although it probably did prevent future crimes. While this does not mean that a no-fly in Libya is a bad idea, it certainly does not make the case that having outsiders (be they the UN, NATO or the US) enter what is a civil war a no-brainer.

      If you think the US has a moral obligation to go to war in against Libya, by all means say so, but hiding behind the false panacea of a no-fly zone is just irresponsible.

  2. The flaw in Bosnia was that the no-fly zone was enforced, but no action was taken against violators. It was a UN action, which explains the illogic and ineffectiveness. But it worked as intended in Iraq.