WASHINGTON, DC – Leaders around the world are vigorously debating the advisability of establishing a no-fly zone to stop the violence unfolding in Libya. Some cite Bosnia, where NATO took too long to protect civilian populations in the mid-1990’s, as a reason to act. Others remember Rwanda, where President Bill Clinton later expressed regret for not acting to save innocent lives. But the stakes in Libya today are more appropriately underscored by the tragedy in southern Iraq in the waning days of the Persian Gulf War 20 years ago.
As coalition forces were routing the Iraqi army in February 1991, President George H.W. Bush encouraged the Iraqi people to “take matters into their hands to force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” When Iraqi Shiites, Kurds, and Marsh Arabs rebelled against Hussein, they believed that American forces would protect them against their brutal dictator’s superior firepower.
Instead, when Iraqi attack helicopters and elite troops began butchering their own people, coalition forces were ordered to stand down. The world watched as thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered.
The situation in Libya today is not identical. Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan people rose up spontaneously against four decades of repression by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Still, the specter that haunts me is the same – ordinary people facing off against an autocrat’s airpower and well-armed soldiers, counting on the free world to protect them against massacre after we have applauded and bolstered their bravery with our words.