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Libya: What's better -- a plan or saving lives?

March 28, 2011 |  1:28 pm


The Libyan rebels are starting to remind me of Rocky Balboa. They're up. They’re down. They're up again. They're cut and bleeding. They're fighting back.

Both come with great corner guys too. Rocky had Mickey, played by Burgess Meredith -- surely on the short list of best-evers. Sample line:

Mickey:  Your nose is broken.
Rocky:  How does it look?
Mickey:  Ah, it's an improvement.

And the rebels have the United States, Britain and France -- not exactly chopped liver.

What's missing in all this, critics say, is a plan. 

Rocky's plan was to get hit a lot and hope he didn't get killed. Which worked, but then again, it was a movie.

It's anyone's guess what the rebels' plan is, other than to overthrow Moammar Kadafi, which is a nice goal but isn't really a plan.

Maybe Libya's corner guys have one?

That's what Tim Rutten wondered in his column Saturday, "Does duty call in Libya?"

Rutten isn't buying the humanitarian-crisis rationale for Western intervention in Libya. Using the examples of the Holocaust, the Tutsi people of Rwanda, even the Japanese earthquake, he argues:

Clearly, civilized nations have an affirmative duty to intervene in such situations to protect the helpless. Does that obligation really extend to a case like Libya's?

What has occurred there over the last few weeks is a political revolution, which now appears to be settling into a civil war. Those can be bitter and bloody affairs, fraught with atrocity and tragedy on every side. The revolutionaries, who voluntarily took up arms, may be brave and inspiring. (Actually, we have only dim notions of who these insurgents are.) But are they in any sense victims in the way European Jewry or the Tutsis or the Armenians were -- and, if we are going to extend the affirmative duty to intervene to situations like Libya, where will it end?

Likewise, Republicans have gone on the offensive against President Obama's decision to join in the no-fly zone over Libya. The most hilarious critic has been Newt Gingrich.  

From the Los Angeles Times' story Sunday:

The former House speaker called for a no-fly zone early this month after Obama said that Moammar Kadafi “must leave." Last week, Gingrich backtracked, saying he would not have intervened using U.S. and European forces.

Addressing an audience of conservative activists, Gingrich explained that when he advocated the no-fly zone, he was merely "trying to follow Obama" and did not favor intervention. But once Obama said the Libyan dictator should go, Gingrich said, "he pitted the prestige and power of the United States against a dictator who's been anti-American for over 40 years."

(Digressing for a moment: When a potential presidential candidate has to give a speech saying, "What I meant was …" well, you can stick a fork in him. So long, Newt, thanks for playing.)

In the end, Rutten's slippery-slope argument about intervention may have merit. And critics may be right that the Obama administration lacks a coherent long-term strategy.

But the truth is, for all our lofty talk about grand strategies, foreign policy is often made up as we go along. (I once had a political-science professor in college who said that. over time, every foreign policy decision turns out to be wrong or at least creates other problems.)

So Libya's a work in progress. So it's messy, and it may not turn out as well as we'd hoped. So we didn't sit down and work out a grand, coherent strategy.

Isn't it enough that a whole lot of Libyans who otherwise would be dead right now aren't, thanks to the Western powers?  

You want strategy?  Here's a strategy, courtesy of Woody Allen in "Manhattan."  In it, Allen's character, Isaac Davis, is attending a dinner party

Isaac Davis:  Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey? Y'know, I read this in the newspaper. We should go down there, get some guys together, y'know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them.
Party Guest: There is this devastating satirical piece on that on the Op Ed page of the Times, it is devastating.
Isaac Davis: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really get right to the point.

Works on Nazis.  Works on Kadafi.


Editorial: The Libya calculation

Doyle McManus: Obama's nuanced call to arms in Libya

Tim Rutten: Does duty call in Libya?

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: Libyan boys play on a destroyed tank on March 28, 2011, in Benghazi, the stronghold of Libya's revolutionaries. Credit: Mahmud Hams / AFP/Getty Images

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