Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

International Intervention in Libya

Michael J. Gerson


March 25, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

The wisdom of American military action in Libya has been debated on both sides.  But the moral principle guiding this intervention is an important one.  It is called “the responsibility to protect,” and it has informed the reactions of America and the United Nations in this crisis.  

This principle emerged as the result of a terrible history.  The 20th century was scarred by a series of genocides and mass atrocities, including Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, in which the world stood by and watched.  

I have visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, and stood near the common graves of more than 250,000 people who were killed in the course of 100 days—just a portion of the total.  The memorial symbolizes both the magnitude of the crime, and the indifference of other nations, which did nothing.  After the European holocaust in the 1940s, the world said, “never again.”  But the promise was empty.  

In 2005, the United Nations, with the support of the United States, passed a resolution defining a new international commitment.  In the case of genocide or mass killings, other nations have a responsibility to defend the innocent. The national sovereignty of the violating nation is not absolute, and should not protect it from consequences.  

The responsibility to protect is a modern doctrine, but it is fully consistent with the Christian ideal of subsidiarity.  In a national context, this principle means that the main responsibility for maintaining order and justice is local.  But when that responsibility is not met, higher levels of government should intervene.  

In the international realm, nations have the primary role in defending order and justice. But when they make war against their own citizens, other nations have the responsibility to prevent atrocities and protect the innocent from violence.  

This was the situation in Libya.  Muammar Gaddafi swore to fight, in his words, “to the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.”  He had already reduced some Libyan towns to rubble.  He was advancing on the major, rebel-held town of Benghazi.  Mass atrocities were likely.

Allowing Gadaffi to take Benghazi would have been a humanitarian disaster.  It would also have sent a message of impunity—that crimes against humanity will go unchallenged.  

The American reaction in Libya, in my view, came late.  But the precedent it establishes is important.  Human beings deserve protection by responsible authorities, wherever they live.  When it is possible to prevent mass killing, a belief in human dignity requires action.  America cannot solve all the problems of the world.  But America, and other nations, should do all they can to prevent the Rwandas of our time.

—Michael J. Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010). 

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”