At the end of last week I couldn't help tweeting that everything I was seeing in Libya was bringing out my inner foreign policy Realist. And everything I've seen this weekend has confirmed me in that view. Indeed, there are so many reasons this strikes me as a bad idea I really hardly know where to start...
A week ago a relatively limited intervention probably could have sealed the rebels' victory... But where do we expect to get from this now? It's not clear to me how the best case scenario can be anything more than our maintaining a safe haven in Benghazi for the people who were about to be crushed because they'd participated in a failed rebellion. So Qaddafi reclaims his rule over all of Libya except this one city which has no government or apparent hope of anything better than permanent limbo. Where do we go with that?
We're calling a time out on a really ugly situation the fundamental dynamics of which we aren't in any position to change. That sounds like a mess.
Maybe we do this and then that rejuvenates the opposition and Qaddafi is gone in a week. If that happens, great. Egg on my face. But I doubt it.
At the same time, TPM published a response from an unnamed "U.S. Government employee in a Middle Eastern Country", who has a different take altogether:
The Arab world is in a state of remarkable transformation. But you would be wrong to look at these as individual transformations, individual revolutions, within individual nation-states. The Arabs certainly don't see it that way. Rather, Libya today occupies a position at the heart of what has been a regional phenomenon, an Arab Spring if you like, that has been defined by a remarkable feeling of solidarity across the Arab world...
But what frustrates me most about yours and others' "realpolitik"-driven critiques of this intervention is that critics seldom stop to consider the alternative. What if we had ignored the rebels' pleas for our assistance? What if we had stood by and done nothing? As you say Qadhafi probably would have prevailed, and the payback likely would have been terrible, for the people in Benghazi and elsewhere. Democracy would have failed in Libya, and stalled elsewhere.
All of which would have been covered exhaustively on Al Jazeera, of course. Under the overall narrative that the United States, after launching a $1.5 trillion invasion of Iraq, ignored the suffering of the people of Libya despite the region's urgent requests for assistance. That we let the democracy movement die in Libya, that we betrayed the Arab people and showed that we do not really care about democracy after all, only about our narrow economic interests. Seriously, people on the street were already using these lines with me last week, even before the going got really bad for the rebels...
Today in Libya and elsewhere in the region we are watching history unfold. It is easy in such moments to lose track of the big picture, to lose perspective. But at the end of the day we must realize that we are faced with a decision that will define our relations with these countries and their people for a long time to come: whether to take the risk and support in a tangible way their democratic aspirations, or stand aside and do nothing in fear of all the things that could go wrong. I for one am glad we chose the former.