Nicholas D. Kristof / Syndicated Columnist
Thanks to America, Libyans are ready to rejoin the world
President Barack Obama took a huge political risk in Libya, writes Nicholas D. Kristof. The lesson is not that we should barge into Syria or Yemen, but that on rare occasions military force can advance human rights. Libya has so far been a model of such an intervention.
TRIPOLI, Libya — Americans are not often heroes in the Arab world, but as nonstop celebrations unfold here in the Libyan capital I keep running into ordinary people who learn where I'm from and then fervently repeat variants of the same phrase: "Thank you, America!"
As I was walking back from Green Square (now renamed "Martyrs' Square") to my hotel Wednesday morning, a car draped in the victorious Libyan flag pulled up and offered me a lift. "I just want you to feel welcome here," explained the driver, Sufian al-Gariani, a 21-year-old salesman. He beamed when he heard where I was from and declared: "Thank you, Americans. Thank you, President Obama."
The hard work in Libya is only just beginning, and it'll be a herculean challenge to knit together tribal divisions and nurture democracy in a nation where all civil society has been squelched. The Libyan experiment could yet fail. Yet let's also savor a historic moment: This was a rare military intervention for humanitarian reasons, and it has succeeded. So far.
President Barack Obama took a huge political risk, averted a massacre and helped topple an odious regime. To me, the lesson is not that we should barge into Syria or Yemen — I don't think we should — but that on rare occasions military force can advance human rights. Libya has so far been a model of such an intervention.
I drove to Tripoli from Tunisia, and the roads in some places are still insecure. Nervous rebels — occasionally child soldiers — operate frequent checkpoints, and there are long lines for gasoline.
Yet there has been great progress in the last few days. More roads and shops are opening, and Tripoli now feels reasonably safe. The biggest menace comes not from Gadhafi militias but from rebels firing automatic weapons into the air in celebration.
Most strikingly, there has been almost no looting and little apparent retaliation against the families of loyalists to Moammar Gadhafi. People have grabbed grenade-launchers from arsenals, but they haven't helped themselves to private shops or homes (with rare exceptions, such as the homes of the Gadhafi family).
Pro-Americanism now is ubiquitous. I was particularly moved by a rebel soldier near Zuwarah in the west who asked me if New York City was safe. When I looked puzzled, he explained: "Irene. The hurricane." And he asked how he could help.
"Without America, we would not be here," Ismael Taweel, a businessman, told me as he stood by Martyrs' Square with a huge grin on his face. "I hope there will be more relations between Libya and America now," he added. That's a common refrain: Libyans are hungry to rejoin the world.
Belgassim Ali, a petroleum engineer, told me: "I would thank America for the stance to protect my people." Without America, he added, "we would not be celebrating. We would be in the cemetery."
I told him that many Americans criticized Obama for the Libyan intervention, arguing that America should solve its own economic problems first. He looked pained and said: "Your money, we will give it back. We are a rich country." He added that without American military backing, vast numbers of Libyans would have been massacred — that should count for something, he pleaded.
Some Libyans told me that they initially had distrusted the American intervention, fearing that it might turn Libya into something like war-torn Iraq. And Haithem Ahmed, a 24-year-old student with bullet wounds in his stomach and arm, disputed that the intervention was primarily humanitarian: "They didn't do it for us," he said. "They did it for oil."
In his next breath, he added: "I love America so much. It's the land of freedom." That warmth toward the United States seems to have replaced the early doubts. It's coupled with huge appreciation for other foreign supporters such as Qatar, Tunisia, France and Britain.
We Americans have seen military interventions go awry — we are still seared by Vietnam and Iraq — and caution is worthwhile, for the end of the Libya story has yet to be written. We can't avert every atrocity, and there are legitimate arguments for investing in nation-building at home rather than abroad. In any case, our use of force will inevitably be inconsistent.
Yet to me Libya is a reminder that sometimes it is possible to use military tools to advance humanitarian causes. This was an exceptional case where we had international and local backing. The big difference with Syria and Yemen is that Libyans overwhelmingly favored our multilateral military intervention, while Syrians and Yemenis mostly don't.
The question of humanitarian intervention is one of the knottiest in foreign policy, and it will arise again. The next time it does, let's remember a lesson of Libya: It is better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.