Caution On Libya


As the bombs and cruise missiles rain down on the strongholds of Libyan dictator Muammar Kaddafy, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained an official silence on the latest Middle East crisis.

That silence is smart. Israel may ultimately gain by the anti-authoritarian surge that is now hitting Libya and by the possible removal of the virulently anti-Israel Kaddafy, but there are also risks in a region where the Arab “street” may be just as hostile to the Jewish state as the despots it wants to depose.

At a time of unprecedented Middle East ferment, Israel needs to avoid playing into the hands of those in the region who are quick to employ the tradition distraction of blaming Israel for every crisis. So far, that seems to be exactly what the Netanyahu government is doing.

The Obama administration, after initially opposing the use of military force to stop Kaddafy from slaughtering his own people, has embarked on another high-risk military mission with unclear goals and a vague exit strategy.

We understand the desire to avert the bloodbath that seemed in the offing; there is little question the Libyan strongman, an active supporter of terrorism in the region, is one of the most erratic and dangerous actors on the world stage.

But to a nation still entangled in a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan and still paying a heavy price for Iraq, there are huge risks. It is not clear to us that the Obama administration has carefully taken them into account. The simple mission of neutralizing Kaddafy’s air force has already morphed into something more extensive, opening rifts between participating nations. And the Arab League that initially supported imposition of the no-fly zone quickly and predictably developed qualms.

Administration officials say they want to hand the military operation over to the Europeans in a matter of days, but that could prove easier said than done as our partners learn what so many past experiences should have taught: that air power alone rarely turns the tide, especially in conflicts between insurgents and government forces.

As the administration tries to steer its way though the landscape of a Middle East in upheaval, it is also critical that it not lose sight of the biggest threat in the region: a belligerent Iran that continues racing toward a nuclear weapons capability. Iran — which also has a restive population tired of decades of oppression — has largely dropped off the world’s radar screens. That must change if the new Middle East unfolding before our eyes is to be a more stable, peaceful place.