Some Discomfiting Questions About Libya

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With preemptive apologies to my cabal of bloodthirsty neo-con warmongering Israel-firsters (happy Purim, fellas!), and with preemptive apologizes as well to those who are better informed about this than I am (I'm bouncing around a North African desert I will identify later, once I end my bouncing, and I have only intermittent connection to the Intertubes), I've been wondering just exactly why armed intervention in Libya is so urgently sought by the West, and why armed intervention in other places that are suffering from similar man-made disasters (Yemen, the Ivory Coast, and the big enchilada, Iran, to name three) is not. I would, like most reasonable people, love to see Muammar Qaddafi brought to justice for the many murders he has committed, and I would I love to see a new, democratically-inclined government installed in Libya.

But: Do we really know who would rule Libya if Qaddafi disappeared from the scene? I met a whole bunch of anti-Qaddafi activists in Cairo last week, and they didn't fill me with good feeling about their intentions or their beliefs. Or, for that matter, their competence. I know that there are many brave people among the opposition, and I wish fervently for their success, on the theory that they can't be worse than Qaddafi. But I'm not one hundred percent behind this theory.

And another question: Are we seeking to depose Qaddafi, who, we are informed by various American officials, has "lost his legitimacy" to rule (as if he didn't lose it when, for instance, he blew up Pam Am 103) because we just hate him more than run-of-the-mill dictators? Is it because he has committed crimes that are so unique? He's a satanic figure, of course, but he has never committed atrocities on the scale of, say Saddam Hussein, or Hafez al-Assad. Are we offended because he has launched aerial attacks against his own citizens? Of course we are, but is this really so unusual in the Middle East?

And another question: Is the goal to remove Qaddafi from power? To limit his running room? What if Libyan rebels don't succeed in removing him from power?  How long will the West be engaged militarily in Libya? What is the strategy here? Is there a strategy? What's the plan if this settles into a standoff? 

I think Hillary Clinton did the right thing, pushing the Obama Administration to back some sort of action (and from what little I've seen, the threat of action may have slowed down Qaddafi a bit). But when I pause to think about it, I'm actually glad for the Administration's hesitancy, and I'm glad Hillary and company (Gates probably more than anyone) have made the point that the Arabs need to own this mission. But again, what is the mission? Inquiring minds want to know.

I apologize if this thoughts have already been circulating widely on the Web; I'm a little bit removed from the conversation at the moment. I certainly hope these questions are being asked.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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