600,000 people died in the U.S. Civil War. General Sherman and the Union Army effectively destroyed and depopulated a large part of the state of Georgia, a tactic not too different from how ancient Rome treated enemy city-states. Over 120,000 people would have to die for the Libyan civil war to be as bloody as ours.
And it is a civil war that Libya is fighting. We tend to get wrapped up in the idea that Gaddafi is a monster and must be hated by his country. But dictators don’t stay in power for decades without the active or tacit support of a large part of the population; even monsters have political bases. When we bombed Gaddafi’s tanks and shot down his planes we were taking sides in a civil war.
Under international law outside countries aren’t supposed to intercede in civil wars. Each nation has the right to determine its government for itself, and civil war is one of the ways countries do this. As long as it doesn’t spill over a country’s borders it is the country’s internal business. As harsh as it is to watch on the news, we rightly stand by and let people kill each other as they try to settle who runs the country.
Intervening in a civil war is also inconsistent with U.S. values. Our country was founded on the belief that people have the ability and right to choose their own government. Like it or not by offering military support to one side we are involving ourselves in the process of choosing their leaders. And if we really do believe in the power of freedom, intervening shouldn’t be necessary – the people of Libya should be able to achieve self-determination on their own, even though the process itself might be bloody.
This, ultimately, was the justification used by the international community: if we hadn’t stepped in there would have been a bloodbath. If we hadn’t destroyed Gaddafi’s advanced weapons he would have slaughtered the rebels and quickly crushed the uprising. Now at least the fight will be fairer. But trying to keep a side from losing a civil war is a hard thing to do. There is a pretty good chance that intervening in Libya won’t actually change the eventual outcome, and it also might not have changed the loss of life. A quick defeat of the rebels would have been bloody, but a long drawn out defeat has the chance to take as many lives and ultimately prove more damaging to the country.
Or you never know, it could work. Maybe keeping the civil war going will put enough pressure on Gaddafi within his own constituency that he will step aside and a gentler, more democratic person will take over. The new leader will settle the civil war and put the country on the path to pluralistic democracy. Maybe five years from now we will look on the intervention as perhaps inconsistent with our values but a key step in fostering what is now a thriving democracy. I have my doubts, but only time will tell.