On Independence Day in 1821, then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams delivered an address on foreign policy to Congress. The question that preoccupied them all at that moment was how to respond to the wave of revolutionary independence movements sweeping Spain's vast colonial empire in the Western Hemisphere.
Adams, who in some sense could be called the father of American nationalism, also was an unwavering exponent of American exceptionalism. Yet this was the heart of his counsel that day:
"Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America's] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.
"But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.
"She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.
"She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."
Adams' self-consciously Ciceronian sentences are one of the glories of American political rhetoric, but he also was among the republic's first great diplomats, and the substance of his admonition remains resonant, particularly when applied to our murkily lurching enmeshment in the revolutionary uprising against Libya's Moammar Kadafi.
The White House and State Department repeatedly have asserted that U.S. military intervention is required to stave off the "humanitarian crisis" that would be created if Kadafi massacred those fighting to overthrow his regime. Commentators supporting the Obama administration have echoed the phrase. Policy analyst William Galston, writing in the New Republic this week, called the Libyan situation a "humanitarian disaster." The New York Times' Nicholas D. Kristof argued that we ought "not forget that a humanitarian catastrophe has been averted for now."
If they were to occur, those massacres would be a tragic consequence of the Libyans' attempt to topple a half-mad but cunning tyrant and thief who has isolated, repressed and systematically stolen from his people for decades. Even so, it would not be a humanitarian disaster in any sense that renders the term usefully intelligible.
We can all agree that a humanitarian crisis is one in which large numbers of people are left in perilous want by events or forces they cannot escape: an earthquake or tsunami, for example, or a famine. One also arises when people are attacked merely for being who they are: The Holocaust is a paradigmatic humanitarian crisis of this sort. There was nothing Jews could do to escape persecution; they could not conform themselves to the Nazis' political tyranny nor save themselves by conversion. They were murdered simply for being Jews.
Similarly, the Armenians or, more recently, the Tutsis in Rwanda or the Balkan Muslims were killed just for being who they were.
Clearly, civilized nations have an affirmative duty to intervene in such situations to protect the helpless. Does that obligation really extend to a case like Libya's?
What has occurred there over the last few weeks is a political revolution, which now appears to be settling into a civil war. Those can be bitter and bloody affairs, fraught with atrocity and tragedy on every side. The revolutionaries, who voluntarily took up arms, may be brave and inspiring. (Actually, we have only dim notions of who these insurgents are.) But are they in any sense victims in the way European Jewry or the Tutsis or the Armenians were — and, if we are going to extend the affirmative duty to intervene to situations like Libya, where will it end?
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the violent repression in Syria continues to escalate. How many people would the Assad family lackeys have to shoot down in the streets before we're obliged to protect people there? The Saudi royals are not as floridly loony as Kadafi, but they're nearly as repressive and every bit as kleptocratic. If political unrest spreads there and the House of Saud begins shooting demonstrators in the streets of Jidda — as it already has in neighboring Bahrain — are we prepared to enforce a no-fly zone over the world's largest oil producer?
The fact that examples so similar to Libya's suggest obvious exceptions to the duty to protect ought to suggest that the humanitarian crisis category is being expanded beyond reason. In cases of natural catastrophe (the Japan quake) or monstrous human conduct (the Holocaust or Rwanda) no exception can be imagined, and when we fail to act, our shame admits no rationalization.
That's not to say that the Libyan revolutionaries don't deserve support. But that case needs to be made on its own merits, which it has not been.