Over the weekend the Obama administration was greeted by a chorus of commentators urging the United States to respond militarily to the situation in Libya. But the choices now facing the administration are complex and demand both speed of response and common sense.
The negative scenarios are easily sketched out. The administration does not want a failed state, a protracted civil war, a major disruption in oil supplies, a humanitarian catastrophe, or to look feckless at a moment of great import. Nor does it want to make the hopefully democratic transitions across other parts of the Middle East more daunting.
In foreign policy, however, it is always easy to sketch out what you don’t want to happen. Putting a positive agenda on the table is much trickier business. This explains why President Barack Obama’s National Security Council staff has been pulling some very late nights.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves. Blowing up a runway or imposing a no-fly zone are not silver bullets. And one would hope that after the experience of both Afghanistan and Iraq—and earlier interventions such as Kosovo and Bosnia—we understand that war is a dangerous, uncertain business. This is not to minimize the brutality of Moammar Qaddafi’s attacks on his own people or to urge inaction. It is to counsel thoughtful action designed with an endgame firmly in mind.
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