In March 2011, the Libyan city of Benghazi was threatened by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. Rebels had risen up to overthrow Gadhafi's dictatorship as part of the Arab Spring, but they were losing. They warned that if he took Benghazi, there would be a massacre.
One week later, a large coalition of Western powers — egged on by many liberal writers citing the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine — agreed to conduct an air campaign against Gadhafi, which quickly evolved from protecting the rebels to overthrowing the regime. A bit over seven months later, Gadhafi was captured and killed. After a brief period of calm, of course, the country descended into more civil war and chaos, and remains to this day basically a failed state.
Compare that to the ongoing ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and murder of the Rohingya people by the Myanmar military. In the West, there has been some condemnation, but barely even a suggestion that they should intervene — let alone the instant consensus for intervention that happened in 2011. It's illustrative both of the West's hypocrisy about war crimes, and the senselessness of its overall approach towards humanitarian issues.
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The Rohingya story follows most of the familiar tropes of a small and long-persecuted minority. A Muslim ethnicity concentrated on the western border of an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, the Rohingya have long been disenfranchised, repressed, and mined for forced labor. Unsurprisingly, Rohingya militant groups have sprouted up over the years to contest their persecution, leading to a cycle of terror attacks and brutal collective punishment in response.
In 2016 the conflict boiled over, and the Myanmar military launched a quasi-genocidal campaign to force the Rohingya out of the country. Mass murder, mass rape, village-burning, and so on created a panic and an exodus of refugees. The highly praised Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for years under the previous military dictatorship, and is now the country's de facto political leader, stood by and let it happen — indeed, in September she pointedly refused to condemn the atrocities.
As a result, something like 800,000 people (including 200,000 children) have fled into Bangladesh — where, of course, they are not particularly welcome. The Bangladesh government has tried to accommodate them in camps, but it is quite poor itself and not remotely equal to the task. The United Nations' refugee agencies, of course, are already stretched far beyond capacity dealing with the Syrian refugee problem.
And yet, there has been little mention of the Rohingya story in Western media — and what coverage exists is mainly by-the-book straight reportage. There is nothing even close to the fevered outcry and instant consensus around intervention that happened around Libya in 2011.
What accounts for this difference?
One likely factor is proximity. Libya is right across the Mediterranean from Europe — and like almost everywhere in Africa, was under European colonial domination for decades — and thus gets more attention.
Probably more important is treasure. Libya has the tenth-greatest known oil reserves, and a huge sovereign wealth fund. (Before the Arab Spring, Goldman Sachs allegedly ripped off the fund to the tune of over a billion dollars.) Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress, once reportedly suggested in an email that Libya's oil revenues could be commandeered to pay for the intervention — because in an age of austerity, there would be less tax revenue available for military spending.
Then there's the general American obsession with the Middle East and Islamist terrorism. Since 9/11, America has been waging constant war across almost the entire region, and paying stupendously disproportionate attention to Islamist terrorism. (Terrorism done by extremist right-wing white people, by contrast, is treated as a criminal problem.) To caricature only slightly, the thinking goes something like this: The 9/11 attacks were the worst thing that has ever happened, Islam is basically to blame, and therefore America needs to be constantly wading around the old Muslim heartland in the Middle East (also taking into account that Americans generally have no idea that most Muslims live in Southeast Asia), rooting out groups like al Qaeda and ISIS.
The fact that the Rohingya are a Muslim minority is the flip side of this bigoted ideology. An overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country like Libya gets top consideration, because Islamist groups might seize power. But if it's just a tiny defenseless Muslim minority being ethnically cleansed? Well, that's not worth getting worked up over.
All this is not to discount the legitimate role that human rights must play in any foreign policy analysis. What to do about the crisis is a difficult question. While I would certainly not support invading Myanmar, in an ideal world the U.S. could start by funding the U.N. humanitarian agencies and putting diplomatic pressure on the country to stop the war crimes.
But it is beyond question that when it comes to humanitarian issues, most Western elite commentators and leaders are staggering hypocrites. If people really cared about such things, the overwhelming priority would be on policies like distributing anti-malarial bed nets, HIV medication, cutting unfair cotton subsidies, and so forth — both dramatically cheaper than military intervention and far less likely to backfire gruesomely.
In a Western political context, human rights concerns are most often a cheap pretext to enable the next military intervention, which is no doubt coming up soon.
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