Ten days ago, a besieged Arab leader decided to crush his country's democracy movement. First, he called in 2,000 foreign troops to suppress the uprising. Then he declared martial law and cut off phone and Internet services. At dawn he deployed tanks to clear the streets and ordered his forces to arrest or shoot anyone who tried to resist. Government troops surrounded and seized a hospital used by demonstrators to treat their wounded. Medical personnel were prevented even from taking away the dead bodies. "Shocking and illegal conduct" is how the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights described reports of the regime's "arbitrary arrests, killings [and] beatings of protestors."
This ruthless use of force against unarmed civilians was carried out not by Muammar Gaddafi, but by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain, and backed up by troops from Saudi Arabia. And yet even as Western warplanes prepared to launch air strikes on Libya to stop Gaddafi's aggression, the U.S. and its allies barely registered even verbal condemnations of the crackdown in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. "We've urged the government and the opposition parties to engage in dialogue," said William Burns, the U.S. Under Secretary of State. Washington's unwillingness to intervene to stop a bloodbath in Bahrain has led skeptics to wonder why the Obama Administration has committed U.S. military power to do so in Libya. As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson writes, "War in Libya is justifiable only if we are going to hold compliant dictators to the same standard we set for defiant ones."
This line of argument has surfaced in nearly every debate about Western military intervention since the end of the Cold War. The British even have a term for it: whataboutery. If you are prepared to go to war to protect Libyan civilians from their government, then what about the persecuted in Bahrain? If countering tyranny is the West's objective, what about Myanmar, whose military rulers are still in power despite massacring thousands of unarmed protesters in 2007? Or Ivory Coast, where government-sponsored violence has forced more than 700,000 people from their homes? Why did the U.S. undertake military action to prevent genocide against Muslims in Bosnia in 1995 but stand by a decade later in Darfur? If we are willing to use military force to help topple a tyrant like Gaddafi, then what about Robert Mugabe or Kim Jong Il?
The appeal of whataboutery arguments is that, from a pure moral standpoint, they are impossible to refute: it's certainly not evident that the Libyan regime is worse than North Korea's. And yet the resort to whataboutery is also deeply cynical. Insisting on moral consistency as a prerequisite for military action is a prescription for American paralysis and isolationism which happens to be the goal of many proponents of whataboutery, on both the right and left. If we're going to police the world selectively, they would argue, we'd be better off not policing it at all.
Thankfully, most of the world rejects the idea of issuing free passes to tyrants. Even so, every intervention involves contradictions and moral trade-offs. The suffering of the Libyan people isn't any more extreme than that endured by millions living elsewhere under equally repressive regimes. The Libyan rebels don't necessarily deserve close air support any more than the demonstrators in Bahrain do. But doing something in Libya has proved better than nothing. It has prevented Gaddafi's forces from launching a full-scale assault on rebel-held cities and given the opposition time to regroup. Valid questions remain about the scope, duration and ultimate objectives of the NATO mission in Libya. But Operation Odyssey Dawn has so far succeeded in saving untold numbers of Libyan lives, and at less cost to the U.S. and its allies than even conservative military estimates had predicted.
So should we go further? What about places like Bahrain or Yemen or even Syria, where autocratic regimes have also used deadly force against their own people? Why not intervene there as well? The answer is that foreign policy isn't one size fits all and in each one of those cases, the military and strategic risks of intervention would outweigh the potential humanitarian benefits. Ultimately, our reasons for intervening in other people's conflicts have little to do with either national security or the "responsibility to protect" civilians from slaughter. The world intervenes in places like Libya, and not in others, not because of any high purpose but for the simple reason that it is feasible to do so.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. As the war in Iraq showed, a crusading foreign policy can be just as dangerous as an inconsistent one. And yet we shouldn't dismiss every charge of Western hypocrisy as mere whataboutery. For years, the U.S. condemned the antidemocratic abuses of our enemies in the Middle East (like Iran), while overlooking those committed by our ostensible allies (like Egypt). Such double standards did more harm than good to American prestige which is why the Obama Administration should now distance itself from the region's autocrats and side more openly with those struggling against them. The democrats of Sana'a and Damascus don't need the U.S. to stage armed interventions on their behalf. But they do expect America's policies to reflect American values. What about that?
Ratnesar, a TIME contributing editor-at-large, is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War. His column on global affairs appears every Monday on TIME.com.