I find the hand wringing over international intervention in Libya fascinating. So does my mom. It's one thing to see conservatives completely flummoxed, yet again, by President Obama's ability to confound their expectations; it's another to see lefty progressives struggle to figure out how to be both pleased and angry at once.
When the history of this is written, I'm convinced that it will probably be anything but the way it appears now: stories that suggest that a "reluctant" President "finally" signed off on intervention miss, I think, that the President's foreign policy team seemed determined to develop an international coalition all along. There was never a chance that the US would, unilaterally, announce airstrikes or a no-fly zone. At the same time, I suspect the moves to convince European and Arab allies to lead the way on just such a plan has been going on for months.
Fears of America being drawn into yet another "Middle East war" strike me as overblown: nothing that has been happening in the past week or so looks anything, to me, like Iraq under George W. Bush or even Iraq under George H.W. Bush. It does, I think, look a lot like Sarajevo and Bosnia... but I think it's the sense of preventing another country's "ethnic cleansing" that will be different. A lot of what's happening right now, after all, is about, of all things, Rwanda; no one wants to see the world stand by as a national army murders its own people.
The reality that Muammar al-Qaddafi planned to kill his enemies, and the reality that his money and his army could achieve that goal is a plain spoken reality that many progressive critics seem determined to minimize or ignore. I'm astonished that bloggers I generally like - and even the bigger, less useful ones like Josh Marshall and Steve Benen - see to suddenly have lost their ability to evaluate complex ideas and deal in more than simple sentences. It's entirely possible to both want to stop a massacre and not want to tajke over the fight in a civil war. And, as well, I think it's possible to avert a terrible tragedy, and possibly even oust a dictator... without being an invading force.
It's been less than ten days, and for more than four of them, liberals have been sharply critical of the plan to "turn over" leadership of the intervention in Libya to an international coalition (and, naturally, conservatives wonder why we would do such a crazy thing at all). It's as if George W Bush and his terrible Presidency erased nearly all memories of how international cooperation, diplomacy, and consensus work. (I've been especially amused and amazed by experts like Rachel Maddow, who actually study international relations, approaching this action as if they've never seen an international episode before.)
This, what we're going through, is how international coalitions work - or, alternatively, don't. It's process by committee, it's slow and sometimes painful and it's hard to get a lot of disparate groups with disparate interests to find common ground and agree on a plan. What's been remarkable, to me, is that pretty much every promised milestone - establishing a no-fly zone, making sure that airstrikes and flyovers have a multinational component, are actually happening. Within a day of launching these attacks, Bengazi was both safe and a massacre averted; within 3 days, Qaddafi has lost almost all of his airstrike capability. It seems to me... that's what everyone moaned about wanting all along.
Our army is not going into Libya, because we can't (we have no troops for it) and because we don't want to. It's reasonable to be concerned about how the Libyans can possibly form another government, and reasonable to wonder if Qaddafi, even after all this, can be convinced to leave (I tend to think he can, and he will). In the end... these are not our problems. But from an international standpoint, it is everyone's problem to stand by and do nothing when a dictator announces a plan to go into his nation's second largest city and kill everyone in it. This does not strike me as a hard call.
Since the Tunisian uprising, Americans - and some Europeans - have been looking at unrest all across the "middle east" as one big, identical event. In fact it's many different events, with many different factors in play in different countries, and more pointedly, this is a different story when we talk about North Africa - i.e. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, versus actual middle eastern peninsula nations like Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Bahrain. One of the primae failures of teh GW Bush years was an undifferentiated, blanket assessment of the threat of "Muslim" extremism. There are a lot of Muslims, a lot of sects, and many tribes.
What might - or might not - happen in Libya isn't going to be so much about what we, as Americans do, as part of an international coalition. This is a civil war, and the ultimate result will be decided between Qaddafi's army and rebel forces. The events in Libya are, after all, the worst case scenario many feared for Egypt and Tunisia (and still fear in places like Syria and Bahrain): some despots will do anything to maintain their hold on power. Anything. And thus, the question becomes: can we stand by, or must we get involved?
It's fair to ask, as liberals do, why Libya and not other nations (especially pointedly, why not African nations like Congo, Sudan or Somalia)... but that, too, is no excuse to argue, as an alternative, that the answer when faced with Qaddafi's threats is to not go into Libya either. Go somewhere. Do something. Start somewhere. We spent a good ten years, as a nation, going it alone, disrespecting international relations and organizations like the United Nations. It takes years, a generation even, to get things back on track. The alternative of going nowhere, doing nothing... that too is no answer. Start somewhere. Start here.
Tomorrow night, President Obama will give a speech. I suspect, for once, that this may be his first real speech - a speech which does not arrived preapproved, its fan base preconditioned to call it his "best ever." This is a speech that will actually have to do the work of winning people over who don't already agree. Oddly, I'm not one of them. I won't need much convincing. I'm already there (and yet, I suspect the speech will be something of a dud, too). This is what international intervention looks like, how an international coalition is formed and how it works. And we don't know how Libya will turn out... but even in 8 days, we can be pretty sure that what's likely to happen is way better than not intervening at all.
And that, it seems to me, is the point.