To intervene in another country’s internal conflict has always posed a prudential judgment, weighing one’s own national interest, alliances, treaty obligations, the global balance and international law. The 20th century has greatly complicated the matter by adding to this combination humanitarian convictions and considerations, mainly inspired by the modern experience of deliberate atrocity and ideologically motivated genocide in and since the Second World War.

Humanitarian military intervention in the affairs of another country, as a great many people wish to see happen in support of the Libyan popular rebellion against the grotesque and oppressive dictatorship of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, can be inspired by moral convictions (in this case, more a matter of simple moral outrage inspired by the character of Gadhafi’s rule), rooted ultimately in religion or in abstract conceptions of justice, or in established international law or agreement.

It can also be a bloody blunder. Finally, it can disguise a policy of self-interest, greed, political ideology or exploitation — or be interpreted as such — as was the case in the American and British-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 — although the Soviets were also the victims of American entrapment, as Zbigniew Brzezinski explained in a French magazine in 1998. (This did not prove to have been a very smart move by America in the long run, although as Mr. Brzezinski has explained, it did deal the fatal blow to a moribund Soviet Union. It is also why the U.S. is in Afghanistan today.)

An Egypt ruled by a military elite suited the American interest and that of its Israeli ally until earlier this year, not because of any American concern for Egyptian national interest or the Egyptians’ well-being, but because it suited Washington (and its European allies) to have Egypt — and Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and the other Muslim states in the region (Iran the self-elected exception) — politically passive and obedient to the prevailing international economic norms and practices of the Western world. That is the way international interest works.

When the Egyptian uprising broke out, after the one in Tunisia, Washington found itself in a dilemma. Its conservative Arab and Israeli allies — far more important to American economic and domestic political interests than Egypt — urged U.S. intervention in the non-humanitarian interest of defending the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. So did many in Congress, the Pentagon and American business.

To judge from their public statements, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her special emissary to President Mubarak, Frank Wisner, were supportive of the dictatorship, at least initially. But what was the U.S. supposed to do? Land the U.S. Marines to impose order in Alexandria and Cairo? That would have been madness. President Barack Obama eventually gave the Egyptian president excellent advice: to leave while he still could.

The alternative would have been what we see now in Libya.

Western opinion currently appears in favor of imposing a “no-fly” zone to support the uprising. This is understandable. The insurgents want to be free from Gadhafi’s loathsome, fantasy-laden and brutal rule. We wish them success. However, overt military intervention would transform a civil conflict into a war between the existing Libyan government and the West — the U.S., NATO and Europe.

The essence of the general Arab uprising is that it has been popular, authentic, spontaneous, democratic and (with respect to established international political and economic interests) disinterested. This has been its marvel and the source of its strength. It has been unique. An overt foreign military intervention threatens to discredit all that, undermining the essential quality of the Arab Revolution.

In addition, although it may seem heartless to say this, the Arab uprising is not our affair, and we should stay away from it. It is theirs, and they must do with it what they wish if they are to maintain their self-respect, their newly achieved power and their ability to go forward from here to bring deep renewal to their cultural world.

The civil struggle in Libya is not merely Gadhafi versus the people but an affair of the tribal attachments of an Arab and Berber population, whose separate regions (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan in modern times) were under Ottoman domination from the 16th century forward and were not united until the 20th century, and separatism undoubtedly persists even now. Western policy planners, military men and even humanitarian enthusiasts do well not to blunder into things they know nothing about. Readers may recall that George W. Bush, having eagerly invaded the Muslim world, had to be sat down and have explained to him the difference between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and why this implied that he was handing Iraq over to predominantly Iranian influence.

Moreover, military intervention is highly destructive. A no-fly zone sounds sensible and prudent, but the U.S. (as Robert Gates has warned Washington) does not intervene anywhere without first suppressing all possible defensive threats to American forces. Hence a NATO or U.S. no-fly zone would be preceded by days if not weeks of systematic bombardment of Libyan defensive sites, inevitably located near cities and oil installations, with much “collateral damage” and many civilian casualties. It is not a humanitarian policy.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Wait, before you go…

If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.

Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.

Support Truthdig