The Art of the Possible or Choosing Between Bad Choices


The bombing of Libya has started. For those who are against any form of violence as well as for those dedicated to protecting civilians and overthrowing dictators, you have had your say. Absolutes are always easy to defend. For those who believe in real politics, that is the agonizing choices involving ambiguity, tradeoffs and unforeseen consequences, the unfolding bombing is not simple to defend or condemn.

On the positive side, obviously, is the United Nations Resolution and the fact that there is a legitimized multilateral force. This is neither a unilateral action nor merely a Western one. If Russia were displeased it could have vetoed the Resolution; if the Arab League were displeased it could have condemned any intervention. And, the Resolution is clear; permission has been given to take out air defense systems and establish a no-fly zone. No foreign occupation or soldiers on the ground are permitted. All of this in the name of protecting civilians, not regime change. The people of Benghazi asked for help.

On the other hand, the Russian Prime Minister has said that the military action reminds him of a "medieval crusade". Why intervene in Libya and not Yemen or the Ivory Coast? The Congress in the United States is complaining that they were not consulted about sending troops or declaring war. There is the inevitable collateral damage to civilians. And many are saying that the United States is too far in front, and that the bombing has already gone beyond what was permitted. Mission creep appears to be setting in.

The United States military has said that the basic objectives are close to being met. President Obama has also stated that the United States will not be in the frontline for the long haul; it will turn over leadership to others. The French are certainly looking for a greater role.

What will happen? As in any military activity, the fog of war will settle in. Even if there is a cessation of the bombing, violence will continue in Libya. Colonel Qaddafi, we imagine, is not ready to retire. Deep divisions between the clans in Libya will not disappear. And the international community appears unprepared to send thousands of troops as peacemakers or a peacekeeping force.

Officials and observers will continue to monitor events. Decisions will be made and analyzed. But, for those who have already decided, or who decided even before the bombing started, there can be no discussion. That is the benefit of simplistic absolutes. Real politics is much more difficult to live and explain; deciding between bad choices is what real politics is all about.

March 22, 2011





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  • Tout le monde s'accorde sur un point : le colonel Kadhafi doit s'en aller et laisser - enfin ! - le peuple libyen décider de son avenir.

    Mais on ne sait pas comment s'y prendre pour se débarrasser de l'encombrant et paranoïaque colonel. Alors on vote une résolution qui permet de détruire quelques installations militaires, officiellement pour protéger la population civile libyenne.

    Mais comme tout le monde sait très bien que le colonel est assez fou pour aller jusqu'au bout, on se demande ce qui va se passer car sur le terrain, les insurgés (c'est d'ailleurs curieux que l'on appelle "insurgés" des gens que la France, par exemple, légitime et reconnaît) ont bien du mal à contenir les forces "loyales".

    Alors, que va faire la "Realpolitik" ? Elle laisse le colonel revenir comme avant ? Elle intervient militairement pour pour que cesse 42 ans de dictature ?
    Elle ferme les yeux - et tant pis pour le résultat - en attendant de pouvoir racheter un peu de pétrole ?

    Il fallait quand même une bonne dose d'optimisme pour croire que quelques bombes allaient permettre aux "insurgés" "d'emporter le morceau" et d'assurer un retour au calme après que le fol excité de Tripoli eut décidé de quitter le pouvoir.

    On a beau être contre la violence, elle finit quand même toujours par vous rattraper ou vous accompagner selon que vous pratiquiez une "Realpolitik" plutôt agressive ou plutôt angélique.

    Au fond la Realpolitik, ne serait-ce pas tout simplement faire croire aux démocrates qu'ils sont les seuls à possédez des bombes propres alors que les autres n'en ont, eux, que des sales...

  • Dear Michel Sommer,

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. What must not be forgotten is the violence used by the Libyan government against its population. That is what drove the United Nations Resolution 1973. To stop that violence is not the same thing as regime change. The debate will be about the difference,as it was in the first Gulf War. The United Nations Security Council agreed to stop the violence, not to overthrow the government.

    Dr. Daniel Warner

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