This letter to the editor by Roberta Cohen originally appeared in the Washington Post on March 2, 2011.
The Feb. 27 front-page story “Threat to Americans guided restrained Libya response” provided a persuasive argument for the Obama administration’s cautious initial reaction to mass killings in Libya: American citizens on the ground would have been endangered had the administration acted forcefully before they were removed. It was a responsible position, possibly the only responsible one, but there is a disturbing side effect.
Governments at war with their own populations may decide in the future that they can easily keep the United States at bay by threatening attacks on American diplomats and civilians. This is the worst kind of international blackmail in violation of the most basic precepts of international law. A strategy to challenge it is needed; otherwise such threats may regularly place in secondary position the international community’s responsibility to protect people against war crimes and crimes against humanity.
[Stabilization is] difficult to do in Iraq and especially Syria because no one wants the U.S. to put lots of forces on the ground to be doing that and locals will struggle to do it well.