Curb Your Messianism

03/07/2011 02:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Dr. Charles G. Cogan Associate, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School

Certainly Muammar Gaddafi is a more despicable figure than his erstwhile neighbor to the west, Zein al-Abidine ben Ali -- whom I knew in Morocco when he was military attaché there -- an unexceptionable and affable officer. But to regard Gaddafi today, against his square-jawed and handsome visage at the moment of his coup d'état in 1969, is to recoil in horror at the Dorian Gray-like transformation that has taken place, be it presumably due to some kind of substance abuse. As Anwar Sadat described Qadhafi to me and others at Blair House sometime during the late 1970s, in the baritone cadences with which he expressed himself, "The man is veeceeious."

However vicious and ubuesque Gaddafi has become, he may not be destined to go away easily. Although the right of intervention for humanitarian reasons (the so-called "doctrine to protect") was enshrined by the United Nations in 2006, this does not mean that the U.S. should plunge into yet another military adventure, tempting and righteous though it would seem to be. We have to have the support of the international community, as expressed in the United Nations Security Council.

The Senate's odd couple, John McCain and Joe Lieberman, inveterate hawks as usual, have called for a no-fly zone over Libya. On the other hand, there is an opposite view, found at times among the military, to the effect that, before undertaking such an action, one must define what is the strategic objective to be attained. Often, those who plead in this vein are unable to articulate a strategic rationale, and thus the concept "strategic" remains at the level of a bromide.

In a more pragmatic vein, there is the view of Robert Gates, who seems to have acquired a touch of iconoclasm as he nears the end of a highly-regarded term as Secretary of Defense. He had this to say about the no-fly zone last week: "Let's just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That's the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that's the way it starts."

So let us stew in our own juice, with the sad knowledge that virtually no one else would be likely to join with us in initiating unilaterally a no-fly zone, let alone a more muscular intervention. Fundamentally, we can't want this more than the Arabs themselves. If the Umma (the Arab nation) doesn't want it, we should stay out of it. If the Arabs, as may be the case, would prefer the killing of Libyans by Gaddafi to a Western attack on Libya, then, as one would say in French, "Tant pis!" ("Too bad"!).