Why Libya, and not Côte d’Ivoire and Bahrain

There are plenty of compelling arguments against the intervention in Libya. The fact that it takes place as President Barack Obama embarks on his first tour of Latin America highlights the way in which our disproportionate and outdated engagement in the Middle East distracts us strategically from what I consider to be more important priorities in our own hemisphere. The delay in taking action allowed for a broad if fragile multilateral mandate, but also probably reduced the likelihood that the intervention will be immediately decisive and thereby raised the risk of a drawn-out stalemate. I, for one, think we could have gotten away with a more-limited, unilateral and publicly opaque version of the strikes we saw over the weekend in the chaos of the immediate uprising two or three weeks ago. Be that as it may, I remain optimistic that the intervention will actually hasten the day when the U.S. can reduce its footprint in that part of the world and turn its attention elsewhere. So yes, it's a risk, but it's a calculated risk.

One argument, though, that I find to be in bad faith is the idea that, because the U.S. and the global community does not intervene everywhere and every time that tyrants and despots abuse their people, it should not intervene in Libya. The examples currently being brandished are Côte d'Ivoire and Bahrain, but Iran, North Korea and Myanmar have been raised as well.

To begin with, it's worth noting that the use of force was raised as a possibility in the immediate aftermath of Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to relinquish power in Côte d'Ivoire. It was subsequently shelved due to a lack of resolve and consensus among the African stakeholders, regionally and continent-wide. Even more relevant to the current debate, the election that Gbagbo has refused to abide by was the exit phase of a negotiated, U.N.-enforced ceasefire to that country's civil war. What's more, U.N. peacekeepers are already in the country and have already "intervened" to the extent that they protected the internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara from Gbagbo's forces in the days following the election. But the biggest difference between the two situations is that Gbagbo is firmly in control of an armed force that successfully prosecuted a long and bloody civil war, whereas Gadhafi's grip on power seemed shaky as recently as three weeks ago. So the likelihood of a decisive outcome, though far from guaranteed in Libya, is almost certainly impossible in Côte d'Ivoire.

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