Why is NATO bombing Libya but not Syria?

Rebel forces in Libya

From Fred Kaplan, Slate:  If NATO is dropping bombs on Libya, why not on Syria? Aren’t the two regimes equally murderous? Where do we draw the lines on these things, and why?

These are some of the questions bandied about in the latest round of the great debate over what some call "humanitarian intervention." The U.N. agencies sanitized the term not long ago as "R2P," for the "responsibility to protect."* From a different angle, the editors of n+1 decried the whole concept, in an article excerpted in Slate, as "A Solution From Hell" (a savage play on Samantha Power’s book, A Problem From Hell, which shamed many liberals into reassessing genocide as a major problem of international relations and foreign policy as an essentially moral undertaking).

To the n+1 authors, there has never been "a truly successful, truly humanitarian humanitarian intervention," not even NATO’s action in Bosnia (the one instance that most skeptics concede was worthwhile) because, "while it stopped Milosevic and ensured the safety of Kosovo," the country itself is not yet "a viable state. . . ."

This may sound awfully cold, but we’re bombing Libya because we can and because it might have good effects; and we’re not bombing Syria because we can’t, and it almost certainly won’t.

Libya is, in fact, the most straightforward case for "R2P" action that’s come along in years, maybe decades. (The widespread claim, repeated in n+1, that Samantha Power, now a member of the National Security Council, persuaded President Obama to intervene is overstated.) Muammar Qaddafi was crushing a popular resistance; he said publicly that he would soon send his hired thugs door-to-door to exterminate the protesters, tens of thousands of them, like "rats." He had the power, and seemingly the will, to make good on his promise. So the Arab League unanimously passed a resolution (a nearly unprecedented event in itself), pleading for the international community to take action. The U.N. Security Council followed with a similar resolution, which neither Russia nor China vetoed. If the Western leaders hadn’t responded under these circumstances, they may as well have announced that "humanitarian intervention" as a concept was dead.

Taking action was also a good idea from a realpolitik angle. The controversy unfolded in the wake of the Arab Spring; it was in our interest for the United States and NATO to appear on the side of a popular uprising against a quasi-allied dictator (and Libya’s was about as quasi an ally as could be imagined).

While many criticized Obama and NATO for doing too little, too late, I suspect that, in the end (which now seems imminent), the effort will seem about right: assisting the rebels with air support (and probably more "training and equipping" by special-operations forces than is acknowledged) but not taking the lead—and, therefore, not getting lassoed with responsibility for determining, or fully funding, the new Libyan order afterward.  (photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty)

Image: slate%208%2020%2011%20Libyan%20rebels.jpg