We heard some of those same sentiments expressed by opponents of U.S. intervention in Libya. I do not liken the situation there to the imminence of the Holocaust, only the startling willingness of good people to mask their cold indifference with appeals to fiscal prudence or something similar. Commentator after commentator, person after person, told me that the United States had no business interfering in Libya — that it needed an exit strategy or permission from Congress, and that if the United States could not intervene everywhere (Newt Gingrich mentioned Zimbabwe, manufacturing a civil war just for the occasion), then we could not intervene anywhere. This, somehow, gets stated as if were a logical principle — do nothing unless you can do everything.
After writing one column calling on the United States to impose a no-fly zone, I was admonished by a sometime presidential adviser who regaled me with the possibility that schools in America would have to close, all because bombs had dropped on Libya. Others took up the same line. You would think that schools would shutter across the country, one school for every sortie from the air base at Aviano, Italy. We simply could not afford such an intervention, I was told, even though schools are locally funded.
How much will the Libyan intervention cost? No one could say. Maybe $1 billion, maybe less. The no-fly zone was imposed almost instantly — Libya really has no air force — and some of the cost has been borne by the allies. War is expensive — an F-15 costs about $10,000 an hour to fly, but some of this flying would be done anyway. The long and the short of it is that Libya is not a budget buster.
Still, a better question is: How much will it cost to save lives? That, after all, is what this operation is all about — the prospect that Moammar Gaddafi was going to settle the score in the most horrific way imaginable. Based on his record and the clear indication that he is crazy, a bloodbath was in prospect. What should the world have done? Nothing? Squeeze Gaddafi with sanctions, seize his Swiss accounts and padlock his son’s London townhouse? None of these measures would have had immediate impact. Sanctions are a slow-working poison. A bullet was needed.
This shocking indifference to the consequences of doing nothing, or doing something so slowly it was effectively nothing, was suddenly in the air — the so-called realist argument. Sadly, the message was coming from the surprisingly cold heart of liberalism. The Nation magazine, the reliable voice of the American left, put it this way: “Given our massive budget deficits and bloated Pentagon spending, never has there been a better time for America to end its role as global policeman in favor of diplomatic and economic multilateralism.” In other words, we gave at the office.
Arguments — good arguments — can be made in opposition to the Libyan intervention. Maybe it will make things worse. Maybe we’ll get bogged down and have to stay for years. Maybe the rebels are the really bad guys.
On the other hand, lives were clearly at stake and something had to be done. The world could not simply shove its hands in its pockets and stand by as some madman had his way with people in his grip — in spirit, a reprise of the Evian conference. The Libyan intervention established a precedent: There is such a thing as the international community and, as inchoate as it may be, it will insist on certain minimum standards even for dictators: Your people are not yours to kill.