In the Arena

Go Slow on Libya

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This is what a worst case scenario looks like: Qaddafi is ramping up the use of airpower against the rebels, increasingly confident that NATO and the U.S. won’t intervene. Actually, this is a next-to-worst case scenario: the real horror would be if Qaddafi breaks out the mustard gas. Either way, we have the spectacle of the Obama Administration standing by as freedom fighters are slaughtered from the air–prime fodder for shoot-first John McCain (yet again, and still, the headliner on a Sunday morning talk show–will wonders never cease?), Mitch McConnell and even for John Kerry.

There are several problems with the conventional wisdom. The biggest problem is that we have no idea whether the rebels in Libya are freedom fighters at all. Some are, especially the English-speaking, western-educated young people who are prime targets for visiting journalists. But how relevant are they to the real power struggle? Who are the non-English-speaking tribal elders? Are they democracy loving freedom fighters…or just Qaddafis-in-waiting? It’s a question to be asked not only in Libya, but also in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain. One hopes for the best–especially in Egypt, where there are signs that the Army is allowing at least a partial transition away from autocracy. But who knows, really? Even Iraq’s democracy is looking shaky these days as Nouri al-Maliki seems intent on consolidating his power.

Only a sociopath would have any sympathy for Qaddafi. And we should do what we can to calm the situation down…but I have this growing fear that the tribal/civil war in Libya may be as representative of what’s happening in the Middle East as the exhilarating people-power revolution in Egypt. This is truly a diplomatic conundrum: we can’t continue to support the autocrats in power…but by opposing them, we may be aiding and abetting the birth of a more chaotic, brutal Middle East. Those who express vast confidence about one side or the other–or who want to shoot first, as the inevitable McCain does–shouldn’t inspire much confidence. We should provide what humanitarian help we can; we should try to mediate, if possible…but we should think twice–no, three times–before taking any sort of military action.

Update: Here’s some really terrific reporting from the battlefield by Time’s Abigail Hauslohner.

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