I didn't like the "shut up and leave it to us" mode of foreign policy when carried out by people I generally disagreed with, in the Bush-Cheney era. I don't like it when it's carried out by people I generally agree with, in this Administration.
Where it might lead: The most predictable failure in modern American military policy has been the reluctance to ask, And what happens then? We invade Iraq to push Saddam Hussein from power. Good. What happens then? Obama increases our commitment in Afghanistan and says that "success" depends on the formation of a legitimate, honest Afghan government on a certain timetable. The deadline passes. What happens then? One reason why Pentagon officials, as opposed to many politicians, have generally been cool to the idea of "preventive" strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities is that many have gone through the exercise of asking, What happens then?
Launching air strikes is the easiest, most exciting, and most dependably successful stage of a modern war, from the US / Western perspective. TV coverage is wall-to-wall and awestruck. The tech advantages are all on our side. Few Americans, or none at all, are hurt. It takes a while to see who is hurt on the ground.
But after this spectacular first stage of air war, what happens then? If the airstrikes persuade Qaddafi and his forces just to quit, great! But what if they don't? What happens when a bomb lands in the "wrong" place? As one inevitably will. When Arab League supporters of the effort see emerging "flaws" and "abuses" in its execution? As they will. When the fighting goes on and the casualties mount up and a commitment meant to be "days, not weeks" cannot "decently" be abandoned, after mere days, with so many lives newly at stake? When the French, the Brits, and other allies reach the end of their military resources -- or their domestic support -- and more of the work naturally shifts to the country with more weapons than the rest of the world combined? I usually do not agree with Peggy Noonan, but I think she is exactly right in her recent warning* about how much easier it is to get into a war than ever to get out. I agree more often with Andrew Sullivan, and I share his frequently expressed recent hopes that this goes well but cautions about why it might not. (Jeffrey Goldberg has asked a set of similar questions, here.)
Like Andrew, I hope to be proven wrong in these concerns. I hope the results are swift, decisive, merciful, and liberating, and that they hasten the spread of the Arab Dawn. But I assert that it is much better to be proven wrong in that way, and to have thought too much about "What happens then?" possibilities -- than to have thought too little about them, which I fear we have done.
* From Noonan's column: "America has to be very careful where it goes in the world, because the
minute it's there--the minute there are boots on the ground, the minute
we leave a footprint--there will spring up, immediately, 15 reasons
America cannot leave. The next day there will be 30 reasons, and the day
after that 45. They are often serious and legitimate reasons. " Contrast this with people whose failure of tragic imagination was so disastrous in Iraq now urging a rush into Libya.
UPDATE: Who could possibly have seen this coming? March 20, Reuters: "West's strikes in Libya hit Arab League criticism" More here.