We know who the bad guy is in Libya. He has been bizarre and violent for 40 years. For much of that time the great powers have been going along. The record features Britain''s freeing of a man intimately involved in the Lockarbie bombing on a flimsy claim of ill health, seemingly to smooth a commercial deal with Libya, and more recent assertions that Gaddafi himself gave the order for the plane''s destruction.
Who are the good guys? Will they be any better, or is anything better than Gaddafi now that he is getting such ugly press?
If we are relying on the leaders of the free world to answer such questions, a lead article in the New York Times is not encouraging. It describes the flips and flops of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as their asking of ruling princes in the Gulf to contribute resources to the effort in Libya. While criticizing the same princes for helping the rulers of Bahrain to put down a rebellion, but moderating the criticism of Saudi involvement in the suppression of demonstrations against the rulers of Bahrain.
You can''t tell the players without a score card.
And the score card does not show the price of the game. Will it be like Iraq, where unseating a tyrant may have resulted in more deaths via direct warfare and domestic chaos than the tyrant himself is said to have killed during his tenure? The arithmetic is controversial, and like other things in international politics, depends on who is making each claim. We are not in the realm of something as orderly as the statistical service or census of a western democracy. Googling produces a wide collection of numbers, and more questions than answers.
It may have felt good to execute Saddam Hussein, but the whole process may have turned Iraq from a checkpoint against Iran to an ally of Iran.
There will be fewer deaths in Libya than in Iraq, but perhaps only because there are fewer people to be killed. Population estimates are 30.4 million Iraqis and 6.5 million Libyans.
International action against ''bad'' people is more worrying than assuring, due to its dependence on politics that is anything but representative or just. Libya, but not Dafur are fair game for armed intervention, largely because Sudan''s ruler had support in the Arab League while Gaddafi earned its enmity. Rwanda and Somalia did not make it on the agenda.
Israelis have reason to worry. Immediate attack by western armies is not on the horizon, but the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanction has some loud voices in support. The same people are trying to expand the list of countries that would provide the Palestinians with a state, boundaries, and capital city without the nuisance of negotiations and mutual concessions.
As described by the New York Times, there was a rolling momentum of support for military action against Libya by country representatives in Washington, New York, and European capitals.
The newspaper''s focus on political players and its description of a senior figure in the National Security Council as a former journalist and human rights advocate does not add to a sense that the process was cool and considered, with major input from professionals who could render dispassionate assessments about Libyan options.
The latest news is of an Obama ultimatum to Gaddafi about honoring a cease fire, and each side claiming that the other is continuing the fighting.
What comes next is likely to be the hardest, and maybe the bloodiest part, as it was in Iraq. It will not be decided by a week of intense action far from the scene. And it is not clear that Gaddifi will go quietly or quickly.
President Obama asserts that America''s involvement will be part of an international effort, will not include ground troops, will not be long lasting, and will pave the way for Libyans themselves to find a solution.
That sounds like what we heard along the way in Iraq. Or was it Afghanistan?