Libya's conflict and national security

By Eric P. Schwartz and Nancy Lindborg
Saturday, March 12, 2011

The first thing you notice in Ras Jdir, Tunisia - after your eyes adjust to the sunlight across the barren expanse of gray sand, rocks and dust - are the lines of bewildered people gathered in a transit camp that provides respite from the desert's inhospitable landscape.

This sleepy border crossing, which we've just visited, became host last week to tens of thousands of Egyptians, South Asians, Africans and others who have fled the violence in Libya and found themselves in need of protection and assistance. Ras Jdir has also become a window into the Libyan conflict and the national security challenge it represents.

The connection between our national security and the human security of people thousands of miles away is clear and compelling: Smart and effective management of this crisis not only safeguards the lives of thousands but also helps avert chaos and further instability in a region undergoing a historic transformation. This is an area where modest U.S. investments can yield enormous positive results. The deployment of U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Teams to the region beginning last week; our provision of $47 million in support to humanitarian organizations operating in Tunisia, Egypt and parts of Libya; and U.S. military transport for stranded Egyptians have demonstrated essential U.S. leadership.

But our role in leading responses to this and so many other crises around the world could come to an end with current proposals to massively cut the kind of U.S. humanitarian assistance that is easing suffering in Tunisia and Libya.

When the crisis in Libya began in late February, organizations such as the International Organization for Migration, the U.N. World Food Program and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had no presence in the villages along Tunisia's border with Libya. But with immediate and substantial financial and technical support from the United States and other governments, a large-scale relief effort took shape within a few days. Transit camps were efficiently organized to provide shelter, food and water. By March 9, tens of thousands had been aided at the Tunisia-Libya border, and displaced people were returning to homes in countries as distant as Ghana, Bangladesh and Vietnam. Efforts are also underway to provide food, water and medical supplies to those still in Libya.

That we can conduct such a swift and effective humanitarian response is no accident. The existence of a system of international and nongovernmental organizations capable of deploying quickly and channeling contributions from a wide array of donors into coherent and efficient lifesaving activities is a direct result of concerted U.S. efforts to build and sustain this important humanitarian architecture. Through consistent support and deep engagement, the United States has been instrumental in developing this system and strengthening the organizations that comprise it.

After visiting the transit camp in Tunisia and talking with those fleeing the violence in Libya, we cannot help but be inspired by the Tunisian people's commitment to provide assistance to vulnerable migrants when the Tunisian economy itself is weakened by the Libyan crisis. We are also impressed by the dedication and effectiveness of American, international and Tunisian aid workers. Their efforts reflect the most noble of values while promoting peace and security in a complex and challenging environment.

This is why we are deeply concerned by the prospect of U.S. humanitarian aid reductions of historic and devastating proportions. This policy retreat would have severe consequences not only in Ras Jdir but in other areas of great importance to the United States such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Haiti and Colombia, where human needs remain so great.

To be sure, this is a time of deep concern about the federal budget, and all programs require close examination. We welcome the scrutiny, as we know from decades of experience that prompt and effective humanitarian action makes a critical difference in the world's trouble spots and helps to avoid the despair, desperation and instability that trigger the need for more costly interventions. It also reinforces our nation's international leadership role and our historical commitment to core humanitarian principles, and it offers the prospect of a brighter future for millions of people around the world.

Eric P. Schwartz is assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. Nancy Lindborg is assistant administrator at USAID's Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company