Libya and the “Never Again” Doctrine

I’ve always believed that in the wake of the Holocaust, the popular Jewish imperative “Never Again” shouldn’t just apply exclusively to Jews, but to all peoples everywhere.  While it might come out of our particular experience, it must be considered a universal imperative. Since we Jews know first hand about such things, never again can we remain silent when any people’s existence is threatened by murderous regimes.

To be completely fair, however, it’s easy enough to determine to not stand idly by in the face of government-sponsored brutality – but it’s quite another to determine what in fact should be done.  Our current military operations in Libya provide the perfect case in point.

Among the many pieces I’ve read on these horrible developments, I was interested to learn that Ban Ki-Moon had in fact invoked “Never Again” while discussing Libya during a recent tour of the US Holocaust Museum. And it was extremely significant to me to learn that National Security Advisor Samantha Powers – an eloquent voice of conscience on the subject of genocide – was among those who urged Obama to support military action against the Kadaffi regime.

However, while I do indeed believe in “Never Again,” and while it has been increasingly agonizing to read the tragic reports coming out of Libya, I must reluctantly admit I do not support our military operations there.

First, and probably foremost, whatever is happening in Libya, it is not close to the scale of a genocide. If that sounds overly crass, it is worth asking why we are eager to engage militarily with Libya yet have chosen not to act on behalf of Cote D’Ivoire, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or any number of other countries whose governments are committing atrocities that are no less brutal than Kadaffi’s (and in some cases more so.)

On this point, Israeli journalist Yael Lavie comes to a fairly blunt conclusion:

Call me a cynic, call me a product of the Middle East or better yet a citizen of this region who witnessed the outcome of western intervention over the course of the last 20 years – but the war that has just begun is not just. It is not being waged to stop the Libyan people from being killed. If that were the case we can name many ongoing genocides around the world, such as the decade long holocaust in the Sudan, where no western UN resolution motivated military action has ever been taken and ask why now?

As it stands right now we may be facing another attempt by the west for enforcing regime change in the Middle East with the usual western personal agenda – the agenda of oil. There is one thing recent history has proven to us time and time again – Where there is no oil, there is no intervention.

Even if one doesn’t share Lavie’s level of cynicism, we’d do well to ask whether or not it’s our place to engage militarily with every oppressive regime around the world.  Especially given our recent history of military regime change with Muslim nations, our operations in Libya might at least give us cause for concern.

As for me, I believe it is profoundly ill-advised for our country to pursue yet another war against an Arab country. While it is true that the Arab League voted to back a no-fly zone, that support is already waning now that air strikes are killing Libyan civilians.  Make no mistake: we are now waging war in Libya.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, as usual, hit this point right on the head on the eve of the UN Security Council vote:

While the action is billed as protecting the civilians of Libya, a no-fly-zone begins with an attack on the air defenses of Libya and Qaddafi forces. It is an act of war. The president made statements which attempt to minimize U.S. action, but U.S. planes may drop U.S. bombs and U.S. missiles may be involved in striking another sovereign nation. War from the air is still war…

The last thing we need is to be embroiled in yet another intervention in another Muslim country. The American people have had enough. First it was Afghanistan, then Iraq. Then bombs began to fall in Pakistan, then Yemen, and soon it seems bombs could be falling in Libya. Our nation simply cannot afford another war, economically, diplomatically or spiritually.

None of this is meant to diminish the sacrosanct imperative of “Never Again.” But beyond the moral absolutes there are difficult and painful questions we must face when confronted with human rights abusing nations: when should we deem it necessary to authorize the use of military force? Why are we compelled to act in some cases but not others? To what extent are our decisions motivated less by need than by national self-interest?

I’ll give the final word to a recent Nation editorial:

(There) is a worrying dimension to this intervention, in that it reflects a mindset that associates US foreign policy, whether alone or as part of an allied force, with heroic crusades to bring down the bad guys. But it is exactly that mindset that has done so much damage in the Middle East over the years and that has saddled us with the costly burdens of two ongoing wars in Muslim lands. And Washington’s support for military action in Libya, on avowedly humanitarian grounds, should call into question ever more sharply the cynical American acquiescence in brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain.

The democratic awakening in the Arab world presents the United States with an opportunity to put that past behind us. It offers us a chance to align our interests with democratic change and economic progress. It would be a tragedy if we allowed the intervention in Libya to distract us from these difficult and important challenges. We need to deal with longstanding allies like Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which continue to resist democratic reforms—and to help the Egyptian people consolidate democracy and create jobs and economic opportunity. The most productive role for America in the Middle East today is diplomatic and economic, not military.

19 thoughts on “Libya and the “Never Again” Doctrine

  1. Nancy Bruski

    Hallelujah! I’m with you on this. It’s so depressing, what has become of our country since the days of hope on the campaign trail in ’08. My sadness at times is close to overwhelming…

  2. Shirin

    I agree with you 100% and then some! And in any case, the U.S. (and its “allies) piling their massively greater violence on the violence already happening is supposed to help the humanitarian situation exactly how? Humanitarian war is an oxymoron. Even if Qadhdhafi ended all violence against the insurgents this moment, violence on the part of the U.S. and its allies will continue until Qadhdhaif is gone, and a “more suitable” (to the United States) regime is in place.

  3. Beth Harris

    Thanks for this reflection, Rabbi Brant! I feel so upset about how quickly our government can make a decision to go to war and destroy what exists without even understanding the society that they are invading. And then there is the situation in the United States and individual states, where we are told there is no longer any money for basic subsistence for the poor, and public education and Medicaid must be cut during brutal budget battle. But where was the debate about whether we could afford another war? Why don’t the war makers have to end one war before they have permission to start another. Can’t we put a ceiling on funds that can be spent for killing and destroying in order to balance the budget? And all of this happening on the 8th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Why shouldn’t we be saying “never again” to a far-sided knee-jerk military invasion? Have we lost our minds? My heart is with the resistance to Gadaffi’s regime, but not every problem is solved with bombing! Creating a “no fly zone” over a foreign country is not a technical, bureaucratic matter. What is our prayer at a time like this?

  4. Anne Ryan

    Once again , a well nuanced and thoughtful response to our knee jerk jump to war in Libya. And it is true that we are more than a bit hypocritical since people who live in areas that have nothing to offer us are never “defended”
    I am grateful for the wisdom I find on these posts


    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      I’m much more convinced by Helena Coban’s argument than Seymour’s.

      Seymour writes:

      (The) revolution in Libya is no less genuine than those in Tunisia and Egypt (and the uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen).

      I’m not sure what he means by “genuine,” but in truth, the Arab revolutions differ fundamentally from nation to nation. In Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain, they have taken the form of nonviolent civilian uprisings. In Libya, we are witnessing something closer to an armed insurrection/civil war.

      Contrary to what Seymour suggests, we don’t actually know all that much about the faction/s we are aiding in Libya. If we do help the rebels achieve a coup, there is every reason to believe the new boss will be as bad (or worse) than the old boss.

      1. Mick

        sorry if this is a double post – comp problems today.

        I dont see any contradiction between Seymour and Coban, who’s blogging about the direction of the situation rather than the West’s intentions. I dont think Seymour confuses local means and motivations at all, and neither should we.

        I’ve been waiting for you to blog since Tunisia began. Any comments on “The thrust of this revolution is not just anti-dictatorship, it’s also anti-imperialist, against the IMF and alliances with Israel. “? An aspect of the unrest in the region that’s almost ignored by the msm, I think.

  5. Muhannad

    I do not know! I have mixed feelings about this.
    You do raise some good questions, but the Libyan army no question was getting ready to committ genocide . And the rebels knew it, and asked for help. This man is crazy, and he is willing to kill everybody.
    What happened was not what we hoped for, but the alternative would have been the end of libyans.
    By the way , Qaddafi has not stopped bombing his people , the news this morning is depressing .

    1. Shirin

      Ya akhi Muhannad, this is the first time I find we do not agree. Qadhdhafi is certainly suffering from one or more mental disorders, but even he is not going to commit genocide, nor would he ever have sufficient forces willing to do such a thing. Even the most deranged despot understands that if he kills all the people he rules over he will no longer be a ruler of anyone or anything.

      And I imagine you are as accustomed as I am to war rhetoric, which is always over the top (just review some of GW Bush’s war talk), and Arabic war rhetoric which is even more over the top than normal war rhetoric. And then there is Qadhdhafi rhetoric, which is beyond even that.

      There was/is no danger of genocide.

      1. Muhannad

        Ya ukhti Shirin, family members disagree all the time.

        Ok , maybe genocide is not the right word, let’s say bloodbath then. certainly he is willing to do that, and he has the forces (army and mercenaries) who are loyal to him (or his money). I read horror stories from friends who lived there, and from Libyans too. You can not put anything past this man, and he said that he will ” clean ” the country : hara hara, dar dar, and zangha zangha.

        Now I never support any war, and do not think that I do not have my suspicion over the intent behind the military operation, but at the end I imagine myself being there with my family and my little children, and I ask myself : do I need international forces to stop this psycho?.

        That is why I said I have mixed feelings, and I did not want to tell Libyans what is best for them based on my ideology.

  6. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

    Well, there’s at least one politician who seems to publicly approve of the “it’s because of the oil” theory. Alas, it ‘s my own Senator Mark Kirk.

    From today’s Chicago Trib:

    CHICAGO— Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said Monday that international forces were in a “shooting war” with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi that should lead to the end of his regime and a swift resolution could reassure oil markets and help drive down gasoline prices, including in the United States.

  7. Steve

    Mark Kirk used to be my Congressman and now he is my Senator.  I have a great deal of respect for Mark Kirk.

    Mark Kirk is correct about the imposition of a no fly zone and air attacks in Libya.

    Qadaffi used air power to suppress his fellow Libyans.  The no fly zone will protect the Libyan population from Qadaffi’s brutality and prevent deaths.

    Hopefully Qadaffi will be overthrown and maybe as a secondary benefit oil prices might come down.  This intervention is worth it if the only benefit is if the families of the victims of Pan Am 103 feel a sense of justice.

    I am not optimistic about what a new Libyan regime might look like.  Hopefully, it will be popular and not under the influence of Iran, Al Qaida or the Fedayeen.  Maybe our European allies might work to steer the new regime in the correct direction.

    You can’t compare this to Ivory Coast, Sudan or Congo situation.  This is a much simpler military operation.  I can’t understand why there isn’t a comprehensive UN plan to use force to change the situation in Ivory Coast, Sudan or Congo.

    Imagine what would happen if the UN would quit wasting time picking on Israel and dedicated it’s time to relieving the human tragedy in Sudan, Congo and Ivory Coast.

    1. Muhannad

      “Maybe our European allies might work to steer the new regime in the correct direction.”
      and they can give them a time out, if they do not behave!!!


      1. Steve

        Yes…Advising in setting up a peaceful democracy with a constitution. I’d like to see Europeans try it. They sure like to sit back and watch and criticize the U.S.. Maybe rhe Americans can watch and be the critics.

  8. Dan Solomon

    If the war in Libya is merely a civil war, that is tribe against tribe, then we should stay out. If it is a liberation struggle – the people against the government – then why not help out by leveling the playing field? The rebels started out by peacefully protesting and they got shot down. They tried to peaceful protest again and they got shot down again. What should they do? They either have to quit or fight back. The chose to fight. Shouldn’t we respect that?

    Dan Solomon

  9. Rich Katz

    A few quick thoughts:

    The inverse of this argument is that if we can’t help the people in one country survive a murderous regime, then we shouldn’t help anywhere.

    Sudan has plenty of oil, so the argument that the U.S. is driven to intervene only out of an interest to preserve the westward flow of oil rings false.

    Iraq is complicated. The no-fly zones that were established in the Gulf War served to protect two endangered ethnic groups, the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. The Iraqi people by and large didn’t request U.S. support for regime change in that country–it was George Bush’s fantasy during the Iraq War–and that’s why it has turned into such a mess. The anti-Gaddafi movement in Libya is requesting help, and we should help provide it. A NATO-led effort to support the rebels will neutralize or remove a brutal leader, stabilize the Egyptian and Tunisian borders, stem a flow of refugees into Europe, and improve the tarnished image of the U.S. in a region where we haven’t been honest brokers of human rights. Most importantly, however, it will create the opportunity for the establishment of an open and democratic society in a country where the people are asking for it.

  10. Clif Brown

    I’m always late commenting because I am so backed up on things to read!

    Regarding the original post and comments

    Hitler claimed to represent the German people yet was ready to have them all perish, in his fits of megalomania and departure from reality as he spent his last days in the bunker. What reason do we have to believe Gadhafi would hesitate to kill any number of Libyans? Has he ever given any indication that he values the lives of anyone other than himself?

    America is in debt to France for intervening militarily with its navy in our own revolution. The French were eager to checkmate the British, so their motives were hardly pure, but we are the beneficiaries.

    Is there ever any certainty about who will be in charge when the dust settles in a conflict?

    The US has an awful history of supporting current regimes no matter how despicable simply for the sake of stability and often through proxies that allowed us to deny involvement. With Libya, we are clearly representing ourselves and the reluctance to act unilaterally shows that something has been learned from our ongoing adventures elsewhere. The cautious approach combined with being up-front about the pros and cons is most welcome.

    Aren’t Gadafi’s forces using U.S. weaponry at least in part? If so, we’ve profited from his tenure and that implicates us as an enabler for what he does with his military.


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