Thanks for clarifying that: The known unknowns of the WH's Libya policy

Where's Donald Rumsfeld when you need him? Once upon a time, the irrepressible former Defense Secretary insured his enshrinement in Barclay's Familiar Quotations with the line:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."

It was hilariously convoluted. As it happens, it also made some sense if you parsed it. Which puts it leagues ahead of the clarification offered by the White House's Ben Rhodes today concerning what America's policy in Libya actually is. In short, what he said was: "I know we said we were for regime change but we're actually not for it except of course for the fact that it is our primary objective." 

But let me let him say it for you because the painful, verbose, circular logorrhea of it all really needs to be experienced to be understood.

Given the fact that there has been some reporting off of a quote from the gaggle, the quote that says 'they underscored their shared commitment of helping provide the people of Libya the opportunity to transform their country by installing a system of government that is democratic and responsive to the will of the people,' we're clarifying, as we've said repeatedly, that the effort of our military operation is not regime change, that as we actually say in this READOUT, it's the Libyan people who are going to make their determinations about the future. We support their aspirations, their democratic aspirations, and have stated that Gaddafi should go because he's lost their confidence.

So, let's go to the chalk board and break that down, shall we? What had been said was that the administration was seeking to help the people of Libya "transform their country" by installing a new system of government. Now, Rhodes was explaining that the "effort" of the intervention ... by which he presumably meant the goal of the effort ... was definitely not regime change. That's not something we would do. In fact, noted Rhodes, we've been saying it over and over again. No, really, seriously, we would never support regime change. But just so we all would understand better, he went on to "clarify" that our effort is instead to support them in realizing their democratic objectives. The core objective of which is to replace the country's government. Which is why we have repeatedly stated that Qaddafi has got to go.

Oh, now I see. Regime change is not our goal. We are just intervening with the collective firepower of NATO in order to help the Libyans get rid of Qaddafi. Who really has to go. That's much clearer. Thank you very much. 

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

David Rothkopf

The big question in Libya: Not why, what, or how, but who?

While legitimate discussions are taking place on both sides of the Atlantic (and the Mediterranean for that matter) about what the goal should be for coalition forces in Libya, how those goals should be achieved, and why outside forces are in the country in the first place, perhaps the most important discussion ought to be who we are fighting on behalf of and along side of. This is not a reference to the shifting contours of the coalition or the fact that the French occasionally act French. Rather it is a question about who our allies are among the Libyan rebel forces. Because persuade ourselves as we might that we are intervening on behalf of the people of Libya to protect them from their demented dictator, at the end of the day, if that dictator falls, some government will have to replace him and right now various actors are positioning themselves to take advantage of the void that may be created.

In recent days, various people have posed questions about this group or the political processes that may follow this rebellion. They include...

The always perceptive Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic:

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 Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post:

Under jihadist commander Abu Yahya Al- Libi, Libyan jihadists staged anti-regime uprisings in the mid-1990s. Like today, those uprisings' central hubs were Benghazi and Darnah.

In 2007 Al-Libi merged his forces into al- Qaida. On March 18, while denouncing the US, France and Britain, Al-Libi called on his forces to overthrow Gaddafi.

A 2007 US Military Academy study of information on al-Qaida forces in Iraq indicate that by far, Eastern Libya made the largest per capita contribution to al-Qaida forces in Iraq.

Veteran Middle East watchers might see Goldberg and Glick as actively pro-Israel voices who are articulating the Israeli view toward the regions recent turmoil which has been, roughly translated from the Hebrew, "don't rock the boat." As tough as the neighborhood is, many Israelis fear efforts at regime change may only make it worse. But it is not only members of this camp that worry about whose march to Tripoli we are enabling. Evan Perez recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that "U.S. counter-terrorism officials are wary that al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa could try take advantage of the upheaval in Libya, seeking a new foothold, said John Brennan, the top White House counter-terrorism official." This jibes with buzz from the White House that for just this reason Brennan and others in the intel community were skeptical of intervention in Libya, articulating the view that sometimes when you stir up a hornet's nest you just get stung.

I find myself in the camp that believes the people of Libya did deserve international protection from Qaddafi, that it should have come much earlier, and that the current operation has been bedeviled by the worst elements of leadership by committee. Having said that, with the prospect of a more extended, costly, risky endeavor to follow through and produce regime change not only on the horizon but being driven by a very real sense that this operation will be a failure if Qaddafi remains in office, I hope we are taking sufficient care to ensure that we are not going to end up with a worse, more dangerous Libya than we started out with.