A Missed Opportunity in Libya

Just a few final thoughts on the opportunity I believe we missed in Libya. To begin with, many of the counterarguments to a U.S. military intervention are sound. As I've already agreed, a no-fly zone is unlikely to be decisive. The same holds true for a limited air strike of the kind I suggested. The advantage of the latter is that it very clearly signals our support for the anti-Gadhafi forces, who we could then supply with less-visible logistical and material support, while allowing us to avoid the long-term commitment of forces and resources of a no-fly zone. But in both cases, the risk of escalation is high, because taking a side in a civil war inherently means being invested in its outcome.

Other arguments that have been used to oppose an intervention are less convincing. In particular, the comparison to Iraq is misplaced -- first, because of a disparity of scale. Not to be cavalier about what remains an act of war and therefore subject to war's unpredictable logic, but Moammar Gadhafi's Libya is not Saddam Husssein's Iraq. Yes, it's still a can of worms, but it's a much smaller can of worms.

The even greater disparity is that of historical context. The invasion of Iraq was an attempt to jumpstart history. A limited intervention in Libya was an opportunity to give history a small nudge to help it over the hump. In so doing, we would have gotten back to our historical roots -- abandoned during the Cold War interlude and the immediate post-Cold War resettling -- as a revolutionary power, as opposed to a status quo power. The common refrain over the past few months has been the need to get on the right side of history. That ignores the way in which history has gotten on our side -- for the first time in a generation and in the last bastion of dictatorship. The fundamental difference between what the Middle East is experiencing today and what the Bush administration tried to achieve in 2003 is the difference between supporting self-determination and imposing it.

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