As the pressure grows on President Obama to take action in Syria, it’s worth going back to re-read the March 2011 speech he gave explaining his intervention in Libya. In it, Obama made clear that that he was not raising the curtain on a new era of humanitarian intervention—that the criteria for U.S. action should depend on an intersection of our interests and our values. (Or, as he put it: “we must always measure our interests against the need for action.”)
Obama went on to explain why Libya passed that test. The country, he said, was at risk of “violence on a horrific scale”—specifically because of what he described as an impending slaughter in the city of Benghazi. Allowing that slaughter, he said, would have “stained the conscience of the world.” That was the values part. The reason that taking action met our interests, Obama said, was because the U.S. enjoyed “a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.”
The Obama administration argues that the same criteria don’t apply in Syria. The killing there has been undeniably terrible, with estimates running as high as 13,000 dead since the uprising began. But in Libya, Obama was acting specifically in response to the imminent storming by Gaddafi’s forces of Benghazi, a city of 700,000, where Obama predicted an indiscriminate massacre. Meanwhile, there’s a consensus that military action in Syria would be far riskier than it was in Libya, thanks to Syria’s more sophisticated military forces and air defenses.
The Syrian opposition is also even more splintered and inchoate than were the Libyan rebels, and Assad is more popular than was Gaddafi. International bodies like the United Nations and Arab League haven’t called for intervention, and Syria’s ties to Russia–and Iran–also introduce all sorts of strategic complications that didn’t exist in the case of Libya, which had few reliable friends and little geo-strategic import. Merely arming the opposition, as Romney has proposed to do, eliminates the risk to American soldiers, but the other concerns still apply.
It’s worth noting that, at one point in his Libya speech, Obama did seem to suggest that morality alone can supersede strategic considerations. “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different,” Obama said. “And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
But in this case, Obama has now seen plenty of those images. And yet he has mainly limited himself to the action of working diplomatically to depose Bashar al-Assad. The surviving families of those dead children in Houla must wonder why that is. The unfortunate truth is that Obama didn’t intervene in Libya despite great risk. He did it because it was a relatively low-risk venture. Whatever you think should be done, the same can’t be said about Syria.
MORE: Who Will Save Syria?