Three Questions about Libya

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1. What is the strategic goal? The key passage of United Nations resolution 1973, passed unanimously last night, authorizes

all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory

The resolution does not call for regime change. It also places its overwhelming emphasis on civilian casualties. If Ghaddafi backs off and consolidates the territory he still holds, with little harm to civilians, what role remains for the U.N.? And will Western nations like the U.S., Great Britain and France–as well as the Arab League–accept that outcome or up the ante? (Andrew Exum is fretting: “Someone please tell me how this ends.”)

2. What is the American military role? Early reports suggest that the U.S., still sensitive to the international perception that we’re a bully in the Muslim world, will play a supporting role. Joe applauds the possibility. But the more complicated things get, the more likely it is that America’s top-notch training, technology and resources will be applied. Or is there a red line of military commitment that Obama will not cross–risking the perception that the U.S. backed away from a fight?

3. What are the domestic politics? The 2012 presidential campaign is just getting underway, and the likely Republican candidates–who have generally been slippery on the Libya question thus far–will not be able to dodge this one. GOP foreign policy elites, whom the top candidates either know well or have an incentive to impress, have mostly supported a forceful intervention. (See Bill Kristol’s latest.) But polls are mixed, showing public support for a no-fly zone but not for actual military strikes, which now seem a real possibility (“all necessary means…”). This could also be a defining moment for Tea Party Republicans, who have alternately shown streaks of isolationism and hawkishness. Finally, what will we hear from Obama’s Democratic allies in  Congress–many of them exhausted by the foreign interventions of the past decade?

Stay tuned as we follow up on the answers to these questions, and the many others still taking shape today.