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Commentary: The high toll of apathy

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In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed an international conference at Evian-les-Bains, France, to deal with the urgent problem of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Representatives from 32 countries met for nine days, trying to come to grips with a humanitarian calamity. At the end, only the Dominican Republic agreed to admit additional Jewish refugees, and Hitler, observing matters from Berlin, concluded that the world would permit him to do with the Jews as he wished. He murdered 6 million of them.

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The Evian conference is not much mentioned anymore -- although it should never be forgotten. It was a monument to international apathy and indifference, not to mention appalling selfishness -- "as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one," said the Australian delegate. Participants convened at the Hotel Royal, a fine resort on Lake Geneva, and resolved only to wring their hands. They had their reasons.

We heard some of those same sentiments expressed by opponents of U.S. intervention in Libya. I do not liken the situation there to the imminence of the Holocaust, only the startling willingness of good people to mask their cold indifference with appeals to fiscal prudence or something similar. Commentator after commentator, person after person, told me that the United States had no business interfering in Libya -- that it needed an exit strategy or permission from Congress, and that if the U.S. could not intervene everywhere, then we could not intervene anywhere. This, somehow, gets stated as if were a logical principle -- do nothing unless you can do everything.

How much will the Libyan intervention cost? No one could say. Maybe $1 billion, maybe less. The no-fly zone was imposed almost instantly -- Libya really has no air force -- and some of the cost has been borne by the allies. War is expensive -- an F-15 costs about $10,000 an hour to fly, but some of this flying would be done anyway. The long and the short of it is that Libya is not a budget buster.

Still, a better question is: How much will it cost to save lives? That, after all, is what this operation is all about -- the prospect that Moammar Gaddafi was going to settle the score in the most horrific way imaginable. Based upon his record and clear indication that he is crazy, a bloodbath was in prospect.

This shocking indifference to the consequences of doing nothing, or doing something so slowly it was effectively nothing, was suddenly in the air -- the so-called realist argument. Sadly, the message was coming from the surprisingly cold heart of liberalism. The Nation magazine, the reliable voice of the American left, put it this way: "Given our massive budget deficits and bloated Pentagon spending, never has there been a better time for America to end its role as global policeman in favor of diplomatic and economic multilateralism." In other words, we gave at the office.

Arguments -- good arguments -- can be made in opposition to the Libyan intervention. Maybe it will make things worse. Maybe we'll get bogged down and have to stay for years. Maybe the rebels are the really bad guys.

On the other hand, lives were clearly at stake and something had to be done. The world could not simply shove its hands in its pockets and stand by as some madman had his way with people in his grip -- in spirit, a reprise of the Evian conference. The Libyan intervention established a precedent: There is such a thing as the international community and, as inchoate as it may be, it will insist on certain minimum standards even for dictators: Your people are not yours to kill.

Richard Cohen's e-mail address is opinion@wctrib.com.

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