Leslie H. Gelb: The Horrible Libya Hypocrisy (Daily Beast):
There's nothing like a foreign-policy crisis, real or imagined, to ignite the worst among world leaders and foreign-policy experts. Out pop the nuclear weapons of the trade: phony analogies and unabashed hypocrisy. The manufactured crisis in Libya is a prime case in point. No foreign states have vital interests at stake in Libya. Events in this rather odd and isolated land have little bearing on the rest of the tumultuous Mideast region. Also not to be dismissed, there are far, far worse humanitarian horrors elsewhere. Yet, U.S. neoconservatives and liberal humanitarian interventionists have trapped another U.S. president into acting as if the opposite were true.
When the world is being turned up-side-down, it's almost reassuring that one thing, at least, is always the same: the blinding stupidity of foreign policy "realists," more accurately described as foreign policy amoralists.
Let's pretend for a moment that the phrase "vital interests" has some meaning. Let's suppose that it means, say, anything that poses an immediate existential threat to a state. If we assume for the moment that a state should only intervene when its vital interests are threatened, it would be relevant to point out that "no foreign states have a vital interest" in Libya. But of course, there is no reason at all that states should only intervene when their vital interests are threatened. They do not, in fact, behave this way, and it would be both unwise and immoral for them to do so.
If we define "vital interests" more broadly, to include events, situations, and trends that will affect the security and economic health of a state in the longer run, then just about every state has a vital interest in Libya. For a dictator to massacre a lot of his people with impunity would be a terrible precedent with far-reaching ramifications. It would signal to other dictators to do the same, and foster a world full of very nasty regimes. It would also give lots of genuine reasons, or pretexts, for other states to take up the humanitarian torch that the West would have dropped, and build large rival militaries which could be used against Western interests. To say that Libya does not matter to the West is profoundly silly.
As for the claim that there are "far worse humanitarian horrors elsewhere," this is true but irrelevant. If x is worse off than y, does that mean one shouldn't help y unless one can help x as well? Not necessarily. It might be easier to help x than y. Perhaps, in addition to benevolence, one also expects some advantage from helping x, but none from helping y. And anyway, if one ought to help both x and y, which may be the case, if one wrongly refuses to help x, that is not a reason not to help y. It would take a good deal of effort to explain just what needs to be assumed for "there are far worse humanitarian horrors elsewhere, therefore don't prevent massacre in Libya" to be a valid argument. This might be a valid argument if, for example, one were already dedicating all one's resources to preventing humanitarian horrors, but because of scarce resources one can't save everyone, therefore one should put all one's resources into the place where one prevents the most horror at the margin. That whole complex of suppositions is so inapplicable in the real world that I feel silly even writing it down.
The truth is that the West is intervening in Libya now is because the Libyans have shown, or at least have given us good reason to believe, that they deserve it, that is, that they can make good use of our help. The rebels have a chance of winning; there is an opportunity to advance freedom, and at relatively low cost, compared to, say, Iraq in 2003, or North Korea today. This is a practical argument. But "realists"/amoralists cannot comprehend practical arguments, because if you want a practical understanding of human behavior and especially of statecraft and international relations, the first thing you have to recognize is that moral principles, good and bad, are everywhere, and this is precisely the thing the amoralists, in doctrinaire, dullard fashion, insist on denying or ignoring. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," and without it the realists can understand nothing about their world.