A Libyan rebel grimaces on the front line near Sultan, south of Benghazi. (Anja Niedringhaus / Associated…)
Once again the United States is bombing a Muslim country to liberate its people from their own sanguinary rulers. Once again we are told that innocent civilians are being massacred and that the United States must intervene as a matter of moral duty, in its capacity as a great and good nation. But in this case — even as part of a broader, U.N.-sanctioned coalition to enforce a no-fly zone — the U.S. should not have intervened at all.
No humanitarian appeal should ever be lightly dismissed, and indeed many Americans justifiably recall with deep regret the failure of the Clinton administration to intervene against the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when a few thousand lightly armed soldiers on the ground could have saved hundreds of thousands.
So why is Libya different? Why shouldn't the United States intervene there?
First, because it has oil and gas, and any U.S. military action will be seen by many people around the world as motivated exclusively by the urge to steal the country's resources. Absurd, of course, but the enemies of the United States will repeat that accusation, all too plausible for most people around the world, who cannot imagine that any government would be benevolent enough to expend blood and treasure to disinterestedly help foreigners, and foreigners of another religion to boot.
Photos: U.S., allies launch attacks in Libya
It is no use arguing that the military control of a territory and the ownership of its natural resources are very different things for any law-abiding occupier. That U.S. military forces made no attempt to seize, or even dutifully secure, Iraq's oil installations during or after the 2003 invasion is a fact known to few, and even when known it is dismissed as irrelevant, or as so much calculated deception. It is because the accusation is so widely believed that Iraqi political leaders have gone out of their way to negotiate oil contracts with non-U.S. companies, to demonstrate that they are not American puppets. (Shenhua Group, Sinochem, Unipec and China National Offshore Oil are all no doubt grateful to the United States for having given them access to Iraq's oil, even if they have not offered to contribute to the trillion-dollar cost of that intervention so far.) Whatever the United States does in Libya, it will only add to its undeserved but by now entrenched reputation as the predatory aggressor of our times.
The second reason why Libya is different from Rwanda is its religion. Look to our experience in Afghanistan, for example. Imams all over Afghanistan routinely denounce the U.S. intervention as a disguised attack on Islam, as a means to opening the way to Christianity. That includes imams salaried by the U.S. taxpayer by way of the Afghan government, which actually disburses the funds.
In an added twist, Afghan religious leaders often explain that the Americans promote the rights of women in order to encourage their rebellion against fathers and husbands, to thus dishonor Afghan families and weaken their resistance to conversion. Again, because no ordinary Afghan would dream of traveling halfway around the world to help Americans, or indeed anyone not of his own religion, such accusations are almost universally believed. They explain the otherwise inexplicable. True, some Afghans still say that it was because of the so-far unfound oil, gas or gold that the Americans came, but nobody believes the benevolent explanation.
Perhaps a recent terrorist attack against U.S. servicemen best illustrates the phenomenon. Arid Uka, who killed two U.S. airmen and wounded two more at Frankfurt airport on March 2, was heard shouting "Allahu akbar" ("God is great") as he fired his 9-millimeter gun. He is from Kosovo, now emerging as Europe's first Muslim state as a result of the 1999 NATO air war against the territory's former Serbian overlords.
Many of Kosovo's inhabitants are duly grateful to the U.S. for their liberation. But there are imams preaching against the pernicious influence of the United States and the West in Kosovo — more loudly of late because of a headscarf ban in its schools. Although local Muslim leaders imposed the ban, with no U.S. involvement, the imams say otherwise, while also condemning U.S.-led invasions of Muslim lands.
Indeed, Uka's stated motivation for the shooting was a purported Internet video that showed U.S. troops raping Muslim women in Afghanistan. He was unable to retrieve any such video for the German police. None seemingly exists, but he no doubt heard about it in his local mosque.