I’ve been following the news from the Mideast, but haven’t written about it, , because the illusion of knowledge here is overwhelming.  Who really knows what’s going on?

After the wave of democratization in Latin America, then Eastern Europe, then Africa, the Mideast has been an increasing anomaly, its regimes the last holdouts among the dictatorships that both the US and Russia found to be in their interest during the Cold War.  The conventional wisdom, that pathetic thing, was that this would continue indefinitely.  George Bush had some idea that invading Iraq would unleash a wave of democracies, which would somehow all vote for pro-American secular libertarians, but that was quietly shelved once Hamas won elections in Palestine.  And there was zero interest in pushing democracy on our allies in Egypt, Pakistan, or the Gulf.

The cheering thing about the wave of protests that started in Tunisia was that it was homegrown, as well as a kick in the eye to al-Qaeda.  It was exhilarating to see Mubarak kicked out in Egypt.  It was sobering, however, to think that the new governments in Tunisia and Egypt have their work cut out for them.  There was a clamor for democracy, but also for jobs and economic growth.  There are still powerful interests that aren’t interested in providing either… or don’t know how.

And then it looked like Libyans were bravely turning against Gadhafi.  And then things turned ugly.

Andrew Sullivan has been great at providing news about all this, but he’s also worked himself into a tizzy over Obama’s decision to get involved.  And he’s right to raise questions: are we getting into another quagmire?  Are we committed to removing Gadhafi at all costs– and if not, are we committed to a divided Libya for as long as that lasts?  What happens if the Arabs or the Libyans turn against the idea?  Why are we intervening in Libya but not Bahrain, where the Saudis intervened to prop up the monarchy?  Shouldn’t there have been the usual pretense of asking for Congressional support?

But there’s a really big question on the other side, too: What would have happened if Gadhafi were allowed to crush the rebellion?  That surely would have sent a strong message to all the autarchs: go ahead and crush yours too.   Would even the ‘finished’ revolutions continue?  It’s the Egyptian military, after all, that is running the country; do we really want to signal them that massive retribution against the people will go unpunished?

It’s also welcome that Obama sought to work through international institutions.  The Arab League asked for Security Council intervention, and the Security Council agreed.  This is, after all, how things are supposed to work; the US is not supposed to be a global vigilante.

In general I’m a noninterventionist.  But nonintervention is sometimes wrong.  It was the wrong thing in Rwanda; it would have been the wrong thing in Kuwait in 1990.  We’re closer than we’ve ever been to a world where dictatorships are a rarity and ones that massacre their citizens can be stopped, with multilateral support.  The long overdue independence of South Sudan is an example. 

But who knows, really.  The situation is incredibly fluid, with conditions and prospects changing hourly ever since the Tunisian revolution.  And we just don’t know the actors, for the most part.  I think to udnerstand any of these revolutions we’re going to have to wait for some really good books. 

In the meantime, the US had to do something… either support the calls for action, or just as decisively reject them.  Gadhafi was already assaulting Banghazi.  It’s a gamble either way.  If I were Obama I’d hate to get the historical rap for getting into a third quagmire.  But you know, past two, who’s counting?  I think I’d hate even further to be the one who could have assured the democratization of the Arab world and didn’t.