One of the things you notice in Washington is that even our government's most talented servants, like most of their fellow humans, have little ability to focus on more than one or two pressing issues at any given moment. Yes, they can speak on eight or ten issues at once, but granting sustained, deep attention to a hard problem is different than juggling questions at a press conference. I mention this because while Libya is a first-tier humanitarian problem, it is, at most, a seventh-tier national security challenge for the U.S. Here is a quick, back-of-the-envelope list of areas across the greater Middle East that demand more American attention than Libya:
1. Afghanistan/Pakistan. If only because 100,000 American troops are engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan, this would qualify as the problem most deserving of continuous American attention. And given that the war isn't going overly well, and that Pakistan is the prime exporter of international jihadists; is the probable home of Al Qaeda's leadership; and is also a nuclear state, it would seem that this combination of Stans demands extraordinary American effort;
2. Iran. Its competition with Saudi Arabia over, among other things, Bahrain; its export of terrorism to Lebanon; its meddling in Arab-Israeli affairs and, of course, its nuclear program, demand the sort of focus the Obama Adminstration was able to bring to it last year, but not, so far, this year;
3. Iraq. There are still 36,000 American troops in Iraq, and keeping Iraq on stable footing, and helping it become a democracy, and keeping it out of Iran's sphere of influence, is an obvious American interest;
4. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Yemen. Yemen teeters on the edge of revolution; if it tips, its government might move in a direction much more sympathetic to AQAP than is the current despotic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. AQAP is also the main Al Qaeda affiliate having the best of luck inserting bombs into the stream of commerce. I believe that counterterrorism experts, including the President's main adviser, John Brennan, are kept up at night over the threat posed by AQAP in Yemen;
5. The future of Egypt and Tunisia. Sustained attention will be required to help, in whatever way it is possible to help, Egypt and Tunisia (and for that matter, Morocco and Jordan) to transition toward democracy without succumbing to the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties. We have limited power to influence events in these countries, but we should certainly be making a concerted effort to provide the sort of help needed to help build democratic institutions.
6. Israeli-Arab peace. The Arab upheavals of 2011 suggest that most Arabs are mainly concerned with their own debased economic and political state, rather than the oppression of Palestinians. Nevertheless, foeward motion on at least an interim deal between Palestinians and Israel would lower the temperature in the Middle East to a significant degree, and ignoring the problem will only make it worse, both for Palestinians and for Israelis, and for the U.S. as well.
7. Libya. As an urgent humanitarian problem, Libya ranks up there with Bahrain, Yemen, Haiti, and the Ivory Coast, perhaps even ahead of them. It is atrocious, what this lunatic is doing to his own people. Like most Americans, I would dearly love to see Muammar Qaddafi removed from power, though I have no idea what would replace him (I fear, of course, that what would replace him would be a hostile, al Qaeda-leaning regime, unlike Qaddafi's in recent years). But Libya poses no threat to the national security of the United States. There are good reasons for the U.S. to join the fight against Qaddafi (and not just the humanitarian reason, but because removing him would give hope to citizens of other despotic countries, including Syria), but not at the expense of the six problems outlined above.