May 1 2011

On Libya, Opinion Pages a No-Debate Zone?

NYT, WP made little room for anti-intervention voices

Moammar Gadhafi--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/BRQ Network/AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Moammar Gadhafi–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/BRQ Network/AP Photo/Ben Curtis

In the month before the UN Security Council approved international military action against Libya, U.S. media frequently discussed the possibility of military intervention, usually in the form of a no-fly zone over the country to stop Moammar Gadhafi’s attacks from the air. But rather than hosting a robust debate, the country’s most influential newspapers gave readers a very lopsided perspective.

On the opinion pages of the New York Times and Washington Post from February 18 through March 17, the day the UN resolution was passed, pieces urging military intervention outnumbered those opposed or questioning by nearly 4 to 1. Such lopsidedness is particularly striking given the Obama administration’s public statements against intervention during this time, prior to its last-minute turnaround.

The Washington Post broached the subject more frequently, publishing 14 editorials and columns that discussed military intervention during the lead-up to war, only three of which expressed clear opposition or skepticism. The paper’s editorial board took a strong stance in favor of military action such as a no-fly zone in three editorials over the course of five days (2/27/11, 3/1/11, 3/3/11). Six of the Post’s regular columnists weighed in, with five taking positions in favor and only one, conservative George Will (3/9/11), opposed. Guest op-eds were more balanced, but still favored pro-intervention voices 3-2. (Four of those five slots were given to current and former government and military officials, with the fifth going to an anti-intervention conservative think tank analyst.)

At the New York Times, hawkish columns outnumbered skeptics 8-2, with the paper itself weighing in for military action three times (2/25/11, 3/1/11, 3/9/11). Times columnist Nicholas Kristof likewise sounded a regular drumbeat for intervention with three columns (2/24/11, 3/3/11, 3/10/11), and both guest op-eds supported the Times’ position. The only voices of opposition in the paper came from regular columnists Maureen Dowd (3/13/11) and Ross Douthat (3/14/11), expressing opposition from the left and right, respectively.

The Post’s opinion pieces were also skewed heavily toward male perspectives, largely because their stable of regular columnists is 75 percent male: Of the paper’s 12 bylined opinion columns in Extra!’s survey, 11 were penned by men. The Times was somewhat more balanced, with three women’s voices and five men’s.

The Times published one opinion piece by a Libyan-British guest columnist, pro-intervention novelist Hisham Matar (3/10/11); the closest the Post ever got to a Mideastern perspective was pro-intervention Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad (3/16/11).

Pro-intervention columns often argued that international military force was required because, as the Post’s Richard Cohen warned (3/15/11), “Unless Obama and the West do something, there’s a bloodbath coming.” Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) wrote in the Post (3/11/11): “The United States and its allies in NATO and the Arab world must be prepared to prevent a massacre like the one that occurred in Srebrenica in 1995, when more than 8,000 men and boys were slaughtered.”

It’s impossible to say what would have happened had the U.S. and its allies not intervened militarily in Libya. Given that the government and armed rebels were fighting each other for power, no doubt civilians would have continued to be caught in the crossfire. However, if opinion-makers want to look to history for instruction, the Srebrenica massacre—which occurred when international intervention was already well underway—shows that intervention won’t necessarily prevent civilian deaths.

In fact, Kosovo serves as a more analogous model: In that civil war, some 2,500 people, including combatants, were killed on both sides in the year before NATO launched its bombing campaign. In the 78 days of NATO airstrikes, the Serbs escalated their attacks and killed an estimated 10,000 people (Foreign Affairs, 9-10/99). The airstrikes themselves killed an estimated 500 civilians (Human Rights Watch, 2/7/00).

The Times seemed to want it both ways. “The United States must not intervene militarily in what increasingly looks like a civil war,” the editors declared (3/1/11), yet two lines later they wrote, “If this goes on much longer, NATO or the United States and certain allies can impose a no-flight zone to ground Libyan warplanes and helicopters.”

As Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies pointed out on CounterSpin (3/11/11), imposing a no-fly zone is an act of war and a military intervention that requires bombing a country’s air defense system sites, which are often located in civilian areas precisely in order to discourage them from being bombed. And—in a move unsurprising for those who have watched military logic trump political ideals time and time again—the push for a no-fly zone resulted in a Security Council resolution authorizing a much more expansive intervention using “all necessary measures” short of a “foreign occupation force.” In practice, that has meant airstrikes on combatants and infrastructure as well as CIA ground operations, and almost certainly leaves enough wiggle room for Special Operations ground forces if NATO deems them necessary.

Though the idea of interventions based on humanitarian principles has gained increasing support and popularity in the post-Cold War era, the major powers whose military might would be required to launch such missions are exceedingly reluctant to commit such resources and risk troop casualties unless national interests are involved. The disinclination of the U.S. and its allies to intervene militarily in Darfur despite consistent, high-profile and well-funded activist pressure is a perfect case in point. Unfortunately, the ideal of “humanitarian intervention” typically plays second fiddle to strategic interests, as in Iraq and Kosovo (Extra!, 1/2/08). Given the violent crackdowns against similar uprisings across the Arab world that have received nary an unkind word from U.S. and other Western backers, it should have been worth pausing to think about what might result from a less-than-selfless intervention in Libya.

Civil wars always result in civilian casualties; the question is whether military intervention is the best way to limit those casualties, or if other kinds of negotiations and pressures ought to be prioritized. That’s the question raised by thoughtful observers like the editors at the Middle East Report (3/22/11), but which scarcely found space to be aired in the rush to war at the Post and the Times.

Research assistance: Patrick Morrison