President Obama was rightly praised for using US forces last month to prevent a civilian massacre in the Libyan city of Benghazi. Now he and US allies must decide whether to stop an ongoing slaughter in Misurata, a port city of 500,000 people.
Hundreds of civilians in Libya’s third-largest city have been killed – including dozens of children – by pro-Qaddafi fighters. Hospitals are overwhelmed as snipers pick off people trying to survive in a city with little food and water.
Entire families are being wiped out as devastating types of bombs are used indiscriminately on homes. Thousands are trying to flee by ship, the only way out for them.
NATO commanders admit they are helpless against the urban-guerrilla tactics now being used by Muammar Qaddafi’s forces. Air power alone cannot strike at soldiers in pickup trucks – indistinguishable from rebels – with mortar rockets or at snipers on tops of buildings. The ragtag rebel groups have few arms.
As a Canadian officer told German media: “It’s a knife fight in a phone booth and it’s very difficult to get in the middle of that.”
The UN mandate for foreign forces to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Libya didn’t anticipate the type of killing in Misurata. “What we have perhaps underestimated is Muammar Qaddafi’s capacity to adapt,” admits Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister.
Only half or less of Libya’s military equipment and headquarters facilities has been destroyed, despite nearly two months and thousands of airstrikes by the United States and other NATO aircraft.
This week, the horrific crisis in the besieged city of Misurata compelled Britain, Italy, and France to decide to send military advisers to the rebel leaders in Benghazi. The Europeans will assist the rebels in organizing their forces better. And a group of French lawmakers wants to send noncombat military specialists to Misurata to help rebels identify targets for NATO air attacks.
But such steps may not be enough as Qaddafi forces quickly make inroads in Misurata, ready to kill civilians who want an end to the Libyan leader’s rule. The rebels there are pleading for on-the-ground help from NATO.
But Mr. Obama opposes deploying either US combat forces or the kind of aircraft designed for close-in strikes on urban areas. The administration claims the US has limited resources and little strategic interest in Libya compared with Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen.
America’s humanitarian impulse to prevent massacres does indeed have a checkered history. President Clinton, for instance, failed to act against Rwanda’s genocide but he did save lives in Bosnia and Kosovo. The US attempt to feed the starving in Somalia ended with US troops being killed in 1993.
Will Misurata become Obama’s Rwanda, a humanitarian stain on his presidential legacy.
The president is in the midst of a campaign to cut defense spending, and wants to limit American leadership in the world. The US has so far spent more than $600 million in the Libyan effort. But then the US did prevent a civilian slaughter in Benghazi with powerful US airstrikes.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, now Obama’s secretary of State, has offered some guidance on what to do in such situations. In 1994, the then-first lady gave a speech after accepting the Elie Wiesel Humanitarian Award. She spoke of a young Jewish girl in Nazi Germany whose writings had awakened “us to the folly of indifference and the terrible toll it takes on our young.
“She wrote: ‘until all mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, everything will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin all over again.’
“Those were Anne Frank’s words. Those were the words of another child caught up in another ... war. But they are the words that you could hear throughout the decades, and that if we listen we can hear today.
“It is not enough that we sympathize with the plight of children here and around the world. Sympathy is important, but empathy is even more important, and action is essential.”