So why bother then? Why remonstrate, much less threaten, if Washington can't do much to produce the outcomes it wants? Because, put simply, the difference between a bad outcome and a not-so-bad outcome matters so much. "Boy, have we helped the Libyan people into a new, free and democratic life," Gelb writes sardonically of the bombing campaign which ended the Muammar al-Qaddafi regime. The country, as he observes, seems poised to dissolve into a series of militarized city-states. And yet the Libyan people themselves are almost unanimous in believing themselves better off without Qaddafi. They desperately want everything they have lost out on over the last four decades. What the United State -- and others -- can do to help Libya become a coherent, functional, and democratic state is modest, but it's not nothing either. Posner, who was also just in Libya, says that the Justice Department is helping to organize a criminal justice system there. If the government can prosecute a few of Qaddafi's henchmen, the militias now acting as private jailers might begin to turn over their prisoners. It's certainly worth a try.
Of course, the big question now is Syria. Just as it's possible that the NATO intervention in Libya will have helped create a country as violent and even unjust as the one that existed before, so to could Western intervention in Syria have undreamed-of consequences. That strikes me as one good reason -- I can think of others -- not to re-enact the NATO air war in Syria. But it's not a good reason for the United States to stand aside while President Bashar al-Assad slaughters his own citizens. The Obama administration cannot adopt a prudent neutrality between Assad and those he is killing.
Aaron David Miller writes that Barack Obama is rightly more concerned about his own political future than about the lives of Syrians. Is it naïve of me to hope, and believe, that that's not the case? I think Obama's hand has been stayed by the fact that there's just no good solution, and that Russia has blocked attempts at even modestly better options. The question now before the administration is whether it will accept that Russia can not be brought around, and instead work with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others to strengthen both the political and military capacity of the Syrian rebels. Recent news accounts imply that it is moving in that direction. In general, Obama has done the right thing during the Arab Spring, if not always exactly at the right time or with quite enough conviction.
Can we say for sure that this is the most effective way to advance American national security interests? No. The future of the Arab world really is impossible to predict from what feels like the eye of the hurricane. But sometimes -- and perhaps especially when things look most grim -- it's not enough to be the detached well-wisher of freedom.