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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

And now, a war against Libya?

Ground personnel load missiles onto F-16 fighter planes at Skydstrup Air Base in Jutland, Denmark, on Friday, March 18, 2011. The Danish Parliament has asked its Air Force to provide four F-16s to support a no-fly zone over Libya. Photo: AP/Casper Dalhoff

Last night, the U.N. Security Council declared a no-fly zone over Libya, along with an arms embargo. What does this mean?

In its declaration, the Security Council calls for “all necessary measures” to end Moammar Gadhafi’s brutal response to Libya’s rebelling citizens by grounding all Libyan aircraft. It is, in essence, a declaration of war by the international community against Gadhafi.

This does not mean, however, that the international community is in agreement over how it will respond. There is no one country taking the leading on enforcing the no-fly zone. Germany and Russia both abstained from voting on last night’s Security Council resolution, while France has led the way in officially recognizing the rebel government and pushing for intervention in the violence.

Within the U.S., the question of what to do about Libya has revealed a split on foreign policy topics that transcends party lines. On one side is Anne Marie Slaughter, a former State Department official, who has accused the president of prioritizing the wrong values in not intervening on the side of the rebels. Eliot Cohen, who served as Condoleeza Rice’s counselor at the State Department, shares Slaughter’s desire for a military intervention in Libya.

Those who oppose the no-fly zone include a mixture of old hands at the Department of Defense — spearheaded by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen (who believes that it would be an “extraordinarily complex” operation) — and columnists.

It’s important to note the bipartisan split in both camps. Factions from both sides of the aisle are not lining up along party lines, which reveals a primary weakness in how the mainstream media tends to view our political system. Liberals and conservatives have at least one point of agreement: Both want to use American military might to change other countries for the better.

Much of the enthusiasm for the no-fly zone stems from the desire to help rebels that we believe are fighting for democracy, and the desire to see a hated tyrant fall. Neither desire, however, makes for especially coherent policy. Because no nation is taking the lead yet in enforcing the no-fly zone, there is no strategy for implementing it. The Security Council resolution does not include measures for handling changes in the status quo (e.g., What happens if the Libyan government either refuses to abide by the no-fly zone and countries begin a bombardment of Libyan territory, or if Gadhafi pulls back and the rebels surge forward?)

It is the U.N.’s prerogative to take sides in a civil war, especially if that is the ruling of the Security Council. But in the absence of any leadership or strategy, the U.S. is under no obligation to enforce such a decision. The blithe assumption by nearly all parties advocating an intervention in Libya is that American airplanes and American troops will enforce the no-fly zone, even if everyone else wants it more than we do.

There is one other matter here that concerns me. While the world collectively wrings its hands in Libya there are countless other dire crises visiting brutality upon the innocent. Yemeni protesters are being beaten and killed by the American-backed dictator there, yet there are no global calls for intervention. Since 1998, more than 5 million people have died in the Congo’s civil war, and both sides have used the systemic rape of women as an instrument of war. Yet that appalling atrocity — orders of magnitude worse than what Gadhafi has put his people through, worse than the Rwandan Genocide, worse than almost anything since the great communist purges of last century — barely merited a peep from the international community, much less calls for full-fledged military intervention.

It cannot be as simple as the mere invocation of human rights. If that were the case, there are far worse offenders than Gadhafi. North Korea, for example, deliberately starved more than a million of its people to death in the 1990s, and continues to imprison, torture and execute the families of those caught speaking illegally. Why no global calls for intervention to end the senseless brutality of the North Korean people?

Slippery slopes never make valid arguments. But the hypocrisy of caring only about Libya because the media cares about Libya — it is part of a grand narrative of the Arab world throwing off its tyrants — is truly galling. This doesn’t mean the cause of the Libyan rebels is unworthy (although since no one really knows who they are, do we really know if their cause is worthy?); it just makes me wonder what makes Libya so special that American servicemen and servicewomen, who are already overworked and in terrible danger in two other wars, must put themselves at risk in yet another country.

I hope the Security Council is able to establish a proper system of command and control for the coming war against Gadhafi, just as I hope that someone somewhere is working on plans for how to handle Libya after Gadhafi falls. Hope, unfortunately, is not a strategy, and it seems that those screaming loudest for intervening in a domestic Libyan affair have given it the least amount of thought.

Choosing not to intervene carries unforeseen consequences; in many ways, the international community’s refusal to intervene in Rwanda in 1994 contributed to the Congo’s horrifying decade of conflict. But intervening also carries extreme costs, and burdens all who participate with dependencies and responsibilities few have discussed openly. There is no doubt that foreign military intervention on the side of the Libyan rebels will be a game-changing event, but do we really know if this is making for a better game?