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Margaret Wente

Why are we at war in Libya? Add to ...

The biggest story in the world today (apart from the catastrophe in Japan) is the war in Libya - a war that Canada has joined. No matter what you think of it, this is a big deal. You might think that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's swift decision to wage war in yet another Muslim country might spark some vigorous political debate.

But where are the hard questions? The United Nations Security Council has endorsed the war. And the Liberals are downright thrilled. "We don't see this as a partisan issue between Liberals and Conservatives," Bob Rae, the Liberal foreign affairs critic, was quoted as saying Sunday. "The fact that Mr. Harper has finally agreed to participate doesn't change the way we will be proceeding over the next week."

So much for one of our biggest foreign policy decisions in years. Parliament is far more consumed with pseudo scandals and the outrage of handwritten "nots."

Personally, I'd be thrilled to see Moammar Gadhafi blown to smithereens. But the debacle in Iraq cured me of my liberal-interventionist enthusiasms. So forgive me if I ask a few basic questions, ones you may not be hearing from our elected stewards of democracy.

What is our objective? Are we fighting to protect the Libyan population from the government, or are we fighting for regime change? U.S. military leaders deny they're going after Colonel Gadhafi, that he might even stay in power. Mr. Harper says he's got to go. Which is it?

What if air strikes don't knock out the bad guys and they keep on killing people anyway?

What national interest do we have in this war, apart from helping to provide multilateral cover for our U.S. ally?

Sure, Col. Gadhafi is an odious thug. But this is not genocide (as in Rwanda), or even ethnic cleansing (as in the former Yugoslavia). It's a brutal, ugly, local rebellion. There are lots of those. So why this one? Of course we all believe in Arab freedom. So what about Yemen, whose government mowed down unarmed demonstrators last week? What if President Bashar al-Assad keeps shooting civilians in Syria?

What happens when the Americans step down from their lead role, as Barack Obama pledges they will do very soon? Does NATO take the lead? The French? The Arab League? Oops, the Arab League has already opened fire on the Americans and the Europeans for being too aggressive, and most of the Arab nations are MIA. The Saudis? Nah, they're too busy sending reinforcements to their buddies in Bahrain.

Who says Libya's rebels are the good guys? What happens if (as seems likely) there are no good guys? As U.S. General David Petraeus asked about Afghanistan, "Tell me how this ends."

The coalition of the hawks and the humanitarians on Libya is a rare sight to behold. Our leading politicians (armchair generals all) support the war. So do the major newspapers, as well as the "responsibility to protect" enthusiasts. But many professional soldiers - including retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie and former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell - think it's a terrible idea. U.S. Defence Secretary Bob Gates was another reluctant warrior.

For Mr. Obama, this war is, as he put it, "a chance to align our values with our interests." For others, it's a risky decision to insert ourselves into a tribal society we don't understand. Haven't we done enough of that already?

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