Libya: Targeting Charades

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Charade is a French word, meaning entertainment. So is Target, at least when my wife shops there (“TAR-jay!”). But why are we engaging in such a charade when it comes to targeting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi?

“If the regime continues to wage war on its people, those who are involved in those command-and-control assets need to recognise that we regard them as legitimate targets,” British defence chief Liam Fox told the Daily Mail newspaper Monday as headed to Washington for a meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Not so fast, the White House said. “It is certainly not the policy of the coalition, of this administration, to decapitate, if you will, or to effect regime change in Libya by force,” spokesman Jay Carney said.

Carney, formerly with Time, used to be my boss, and we were colleagues for nearly 20 years. He’s a smart guy. So why is he saying something so stupid?

Well, there are several reasons:

— It may not be U.S. “policy” to kill Gaddafi. Just think of it a bonus — like the S&H Green Stamps that Mom used to collect and you had to lick and stick in those books — if a Predator-launched Hellfire lands on his head. In fact, a pair of Norwegian F-16s bombed his compound on Monday. Surely, the White House would not object if they’d gotten the Libyan leader. Think of it as convenient collateral damage.

— Assassination is always a nasty business. But as Fox — who, last time I checked, represented a member of the coalition, contrary to what Carney says — reminds us: the leader of a wartime foe is generally deemed a legitimate target as the tippity-top of the command-and-control pyramid. Especially when he is waging war against his own population.

— Killing a single person in a war is tough to do. Ask Saddam Hussein (oops — never mind…but the fact is we dedicated bombing missions to killing him in the 2003 Gulf War and failed). In 1986, in fact, President Reagan tried, and failed, to kill Gaddafi after the U.S. implicated Libya in the bombing of a German discotheque that killed three U.S. servicemen. Sometimes it’s better not to make a foe a target; then you can’t fail — at least in that particular part of the mission.

But the bottom line is this: our allies and us are at war over Libya. We are dropping bombs and firing missiles at Libyan military targets every day. We are risking the lives of young men and women who fly their warplanes over hostile territory.

In the decade-long dance before the second Iraq war, I remember an Army officer saying:

Wouldn’t it be great if we could avoid this whole problem with a well-aimed bullet at Saddam, from his inner circle, or even one of us?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could end this Libyan fight the same way? If not, why not? If so, why is the White House afraid to say so?