More than even Afghanistan and Iraq, the profile of 21st Century conflict is represented by Libya. A civil war involving the overthrow of a dictator by indigenous forces, in a nation rich with oil, in which the oil-consuming Atlantic nations intervene militarily to prevent the dictator from slaughtering his own people. Meanwhile, those same nations are not intervening on behalf of indigenous uprisings in Bahrain, which also has oil, and Yemen. These latter two countries have been much more helpful to us than Libya has.
There is every indication that some Libyans rising up against Gaddafi are also anti-American, possibly to the point of supporting terrorism. We don't know whether this is true in Libya or elsewhere because we had not developed intelligence on the Arab "street." Sound confusing? It should.
Conflict in this century will make 20th Century nation-state wars against imperialists, fascists, and communists look simple by comparison. Good guys versus bad guys. But what principles do we use to decide on intervention where neither side threatens us, where both sides or all sides may be unpleasant guys, where one side or both sides don't wear uniforms, and where clear moral authority is not possessed by anyone? This new century of conflict is going to be much more gray and plaid than black and white.
It is to be hoped that we don't simply decide to use military force by the toss of a coin. That would be a prescription for willy-nilly arbitrariness honored by no one. So far, the only positive development in the Libyan arena is the rare leadership shown by Britain and France. They seem to have forced our hand. But that is not all bad. I have believed for quite some time that other democratic nations had to step up on peacemaking and peacekeeping. We can't and shouldn't try to do it all. Let's hope this new spirit of shared responsibility expands.
Even so, we are all going to need a new set of consistent and defensible principles on when and how to intervene in the affairs of other nations.
Visit Senator Hart's blog at Matters of Principle.