In Libya, it's Iraq '91, not Iraq '03

As talking heads regurgitate the merits and drawbacks of military action in Libya for yet another news cycle, there’s been no shortage of irresponsible comparisons to the 2003 invasion–and yes, I will go so far as to say liberation–of Iraq. These comparisons are inappropriate for a number of reasons, the two most obvious being that the Libyan people have begun a popular uprising against their tyrannical leader, and that tyrannical leader has taken to using force against them. This isn’t Iraq 2003. It’s Iraq 1991. And we have a chance to avoid making the same mistake twice.

Following a decade of Saddam’s wars and an even longer period of mistreatment, the Shi’ites of Iraq took up arms against Hussein’s regime. Despite being outgunned and disorganized, they begin an uprising–just like the one in Libya–that led to the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands of civilians in loyalist reprisals–just as we’re poised to see in Libya.

Even though there was never any explicit pledge of American support for the rebels in Iraq, the failure for any to arrive was viewed as a betrayal that is felt in the region to this day and fuels the continual distrust of American forces. In Libya, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here we have an uprising, in progress, against a crazy man who has committed terrorist acts against the civilized world and who has begun using force against his own people. There are few situations in diplomacy as devoid of gray areas as this one. By providing humanitarian relief, and yes, enforcing a no-fly zone, the United States has the potential to earn substantial goodwill in what we hope to be an emerging democracy. I am not advocating invasion. I am not advocating nation-building. I am talking about aiding a group of people who have risked all that they have to fight tyranny. Is there any struggle to which Americans can possibly feel a greater kinship?

Forget, for a moment, the obligation we have as human beings to prevent suffering of the magnitude that Gaddafi stands to visit on those who are acting against him. The people of Libya will, inevitably, regain control of their nation; it’s just a matter of time. Whether it is preceded by Gaddafi’s death in a decade or his abdication tomorrow is irrelevant. What we can control is how 6.4 million people perceive the United States, and there, there are only two options: we can either be the people who sat on the sidelines as a madman murdered his own people or the people who saved lives and allowed people to take a step toward self-determination. I’d like to think we’re the latter.