In the Arena

The Libya Speech–From the Middle East

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Michael Crowley is appropriately skeptical about Barack Obama’s speech last night. I understand, and respect, the principles that the President laid out, but in a world of troubles–and with really limited resources (a concept apparently foreign to most Americans, for whom “exceptionalism” includes boundless amounts of money…and boundless amounts of readiness from an overstretched military)–I still believe we have to be far more careful about picking our fights, even when the world is egging us on.

After several days of meetings with Israeli officials here, I was not too surprised to find that Libya barely dented the conversation. In one lengthy meeting with a former Mossad leader, we toured the entire region–and, I realized as I left, he never brought up Gaddafi. He was vehement on the need to provide economic assistance to Egypt, however. And he was still sorting out the impact of the revolutionary tide on Iran’s fortunes in the region (always a priority for the Israelis and Saudis)–the jury is out, so long as the situation in Syria is in doubt.  In fact, he was far more concerned about the fate of Iraq, a crucial problem that has gotten lost in the maelstrom and may tip the balance of power in the region, than he was about Libya.

There is another view, however: as I reported a few days ago, most Palestinians seem entirely pleased that Obama has acted against Gaddafi, who is seen as an Arab embarrassment. Palestinian activists are grudging about this: Obama still vetoed the UN resolution condemning the Israeli settlements, “which is unforgiveable,”  a young woman named Najwan Berekdar told me in Ramallah, but she saw Libya as an acceptable intervention, unlike the invasion of Iraq. And my inevitable Jerusalem cabdriver was unequivocal: “Thank you, thank you. Qaddafi is a pig. Everyone is happy with Obama about this.”

I remain skeptical. These sorts of interventions are a lot easier to get into than get out of–unless, like Ronald Reagan in Lebanon, you just cut and run. Gaddafi has tribal allies and a still-formidable land force. This may drag on. We may be dragged further in. And while I’m sure that Gaddafi had a particularly grisly version of hell prepared for the rebel holdouts in Benghazi, I’m not sure how their fate differs from the dozens already murdered by Bashar Assad in Syria, or the hundreds killed in Yemen, which are countries that have far greater strategic importance. We have sent a nice, humanitarian message to the world–until the next cable news mini-holocaust, or until Libya goes sour. But it has been a diversion. I hope we can get rid of Gaddafi quickly. But we need to focus on Egypt, and Pakistan, and Ohio. Especially Ohio.