The Benefits of Completely Closed Dictatorships

By Jeffrey Goldberg

A Goldblog reader writes:

You supported the Iraq war on humanitarian grounds when Iraq wasn't a humanitarian crisis (I'll give you the fact that Saddam Hussein committed a genocide against his Kurds, but that was over by the time the drums of war started beating). Now, in an active humanitarian crisis, in Libya, you are ambivalent. Can you explain?

I suppose the CNN effect goes a part of the way to explaining this. Saddam Hussein, in 2002 and the beginning of 2003, was actively engaged in the brutal ethnic cleansing of Kirkuk; in the extermination of the Marsh Arabs; in the enthusiastic torture, rape and murder of Shi'a dissidents, and the enthusiastic torture, rape and murder, in fact, of anyone who opposed his regime. The prisons were overflowing with the innocent damned when the Americans finally arrived. And does anyone doubt that, had the Americans not arrived, Saddam would have not, once again, eventually committed another genocide against the Kurds?  Does anyone think the no-fly-zones would have been kept in place forever?

But many in the West weren't seized by these grotesque abuses of human rights and basic human dignity because we didn't have pictures. It's more complicated than that, obviously, but it's folly to underestimate the power of pictures to move opinion. Right now, in Syria, the most awful abuses of human rights are taking place, on the streets and in the prisons. But we don't see these abuses, because Syria imposes a permanent crackdown on journalism. Therefore, we're moved to fight against the oppressor of Benghazi, where we can see the oppressor in action. Obviously, there's more to the West's hatred of Qaddafi than that; this current war almost has a sentimental feeling to it because we've hated this lunatic for so long.

My objection to the Libya intervention isn't based on humanitarian grounds. My objection isn't even really an objection. I would like to see Qaddafi on trial for murder. I would like the innocent people of Libya to be protected from a lunatic. My questions about this war have to do with an overstretched America, and with a campaign that seems to have been insufficiently thought-out (and we've seen the results of that problem in Iraq). But I support the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime by most means necessary.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/03/the-benefits-of-completely-closed-dictatorships/72949/