The right goal in Libya and Syria (as in Afghanistan) is a transition to an inclusive, democratic government — with as little bloodshed along the way as possible. The alternative to such a settlement is a protracted conflict that could mean massacres of civilians and, on present evidence, a bloody stalemate that further destabilizes the region.
It’s distasteful to contemplate dialogue with leaders such as Gaddafi and Assad who, to put it bluntly, have blood on their hands. But this approach is worth exploring if it can foster a transition to a democratic government — where the autocrats cede power to a coalition that includes reformist elements of the old regime and the opposition.
An emissary who is close to Gaddafi’s inner circle has outlined in recent interviews a Libyan formula for transition. He proposes a gradual transfer of power to a new government that would unite the rebel Transitional National Council with “reconcilables” from the regime. Gaddafi himself would quit Tripoli and give up power, but this would be an outcome of negotiations, rather than a precondition. State Department officials are skeptical, but they should test the emissary’s ability to deliver.
The Syrian case is also complicated by the blood-soaked history of the regime. In a speech Monday, Assad proposed a national dialogue, in which the democratic opposition would select 100 participants to meet with government representatives — and plan elections and a new constitution. Given Assad’s disappointing record, it’s doubtful that he can or will deliver. But it makes sense to test his offer — not least because such a process would terrify Assad’s patrons in Iran. If the dialogue fails, the Syrian demonstrations will be all the more potent, and Assad’s hold weaker.
Absent some stroke that eliminates Qaddafi and/or Assad (and even that might not lead automatically to a happy ending, given the internal divisions in both countries), it's become increasingly apparent that both men still retain enough support to hang on for a considerable time. As things now stand, that means, in Libya, more airstrikes, more civilian deaths, more damage to infrastructure that, even if hostilities ended today, would require billions of dollars to repair or replace - and at a time when the number of potential donors to that reconstruction is dwindling, owing to global economic realities. And the longer Syria remains unstable, the wider the sectarian fissures grow, and the greater the possibility of their spilling into the sectarian politics of Lebanon and Iraq.
This Arab spring may not witness the kind of "spring cleaning" that many had hoped for. But it's much better to seek - and perhaps achieve - incremental progress than to insist doggedly on an all-or-nothing tack that might prove even less productive, and much more destructive.