NATO's Sarajevo Moment

In the early 1990s, the Western powers stood by idly while the Muslims of Bosnia were murdered, raped, thrown into concentration camps and ethnically cleansed in the hundreds of thousands. This disgraceful passivity in the face of atrocities of WW II imagery occurred in the immediate aftermath of the democratic world's historic triumph in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It took more than three years before the United States and its allies were stirred into action -- thanks largely to Bill Clinton being pushed into an untenable corner by then French President Jacques Chirac. The ensuing intervention was quick and decisive. The air campaign and subsequent occupation of Bosnia cost America not a single casualty.

History now is repeating itself. Valiant Libyans who are fighting for their freedom from a tyrant are being left pretty much to their own devices. Civilians in Misrata are being subjected to death by a thousand cuts similar to what was the fate of Sarajevo's citizens. The Libyans of Suwarah already have been cleansed. Opponents of the regime in Tripoli are suffering systematic abuse across the country. Benghazi seems destined to be cast as Sarajevo in this recasting of the Bosnian tragic drama.

Some things are different. For one thing, the cluttered diplomatic field In Bosnia included the United Nations, the European Union, the OSCE and NATO as a belated late arrival. Libya is a NATO affair, with the Arab League and the African Union in cameo roles. There is no game of organizational pass the hot potato to excuse negligent behavior. More important, NATO already has intervened -- legally under a United Nations Security Council Resolution, technically throughja decisions of the North Atlantic Council, and physically through more than 1,000 air sorties -- a few of which actually targeted those loyalists forces attacking civilians and the opposition fighters. Therein lies the problem. The West's high blown rhetoric ("Gaddafi must go" -- Barack Obama) is out of sync with a pusillanimous policy of restricted assistance to those very victims who have been explicitly identified as justifying and requiring immediate assistance. Many excuses are offered, but taken together cannot explain the Alliance's failure to do what it is committed to do, and which it is obviously capable of doing.

Instead, the beleaguered opposition is warned that it too will be punished if it harms civilians -- a warning issued out of the blue. Shipments of arms and medicine from Benghazi to Misurata are interdicted by NATO vessels based on a (intentional?) misreading of the UNSC mandate. Its battle fleets somehow overlook a loyalist gunboat randomly shelling Misurata at its leisure. And somehow opposition tanks are hit from the air at the same time as NATO is pleading an inability to halt the assaults by Gaddafi's forces on grounds of bad weather, dust storms and the challenge of telling tanks and artillery from a camel caravan. Desperate appeals and complaints from opposition leaders are to no avail. One imagines that those 1,000 NATO air sorties must include a coastal mapping exercise to ascertain the best locations for Club Med and condo complex investments in post-Gaddafi Libya, or perhaps they are following an old Red October contingency plan. Now, unimpeded loyalist forces advance on Benghazi where Gaddafi has vowed to rout them out like rats. In other words, give them the full Sarajevo treatment which he already has refined in Misurata.

This feckless performance is all the more intolerable given the context of the history making democracy wave sweeping the Arab world. It is being met by a reactionary, counter-revolutionary movement led by Saudi Arabia that mobilizes the Middle East's other embattled potentates. The outcome of this struggle is unclear. All we can say for sure is that there can be no return to the status quo ante. The West will be living with its effects for decades. Washington and other NATO capitals are themselves uneasy about what the future holds. They have stakes in stability and, in some places, a perceived stake in perpetuating the rule of now threatened partners. Hence, the equivocation that has marked the Western response to the unforeseen upheaval is not contained to Libya, but in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen as well.

Admittedly, there are other factors in the equation that have contributed to the shambles that is the NATO intervention in Libya. Parochial political agendas at home that are given precedence by leaders in Washington, Berlin, Rome and elsewhere is one. Then there are the intrinsic drawbacks of a multilateral policy process bereft of accustomed American leadership. A leaderless group always will have trouble generating a coherent strategy and executing a coherent military operation.

Finally, we all seem bereft of vision -- vision inspired by our most basic principles. Western leaders, and their political class, seem unable to look beyond tactical considerations and short-term needs. They have little tolerance for uncertainty and, at the end of the day, little confidence in themselves. Even the United States with the manifest audacity to throw its military strength around in the most improbable ventures in the most improbable of places, shrinks from affirming its advertised values. Rather, it seems ready to live with the consequences of having turned its back on them; and to do so in the full glare of worldwide publicity whose attention is trained on the unfolding Middle East drama. An America, and a West, that rather casually ignores another Sarajevo will pay a high price in the discrediting of its own ideals, of its proclaimed dedication to the cause of political decency and its integrity in suppressing its humanistic instincts.  They will have gained little in return in terms of loyalty and deference from its now rattled regional allies.

Intangibles can count in practical ways. Virtue in this instance is more than just its own reward.