US President Barack Obama has already developed a reputation for tough talk and
little action. Worse yet, America’s cautiousness in the wake of the lessons of
Iraq and Afghanistan – while understandable – threaten to paint a picture of the
Obama White House as weak, ineffectual and cowardly.
Just days into a
military campaign to cripple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s ability to launch attacks
against the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the effort is threatened by
obfuscation and lack of leadership. The same kind of foot-dragging deliberations
which escalated the situation by enabling time for Gaddafi’s forces to turn the
tide against the early advances of the rebels, now threaten to leave Libya in an
open-ended civil war. By allowing such a dire situation to fester, the US is
abdicating its responsibility to provide moral leadership.
US should be neither apologetic nor abashed in clearly stating its interests: a
removal of Gaddafi from his fiefdom in favor of a stable path toward an Arab and
Libyan-led reconstitution of the Libyan state that gives voice to all the people
of Libya, rather than to a single madman in Tripoli. The early impotence of the
international community to respond to the tragic bloodshed was
But a precedent has been set in all Arab capitals. The success
of the Arab revolutions of 2011, the fate of the Libyan people and security
across North Africa and Europe demand that Gaddafi be removed from
THE HESITANCY of the US to intervene – and “nation-build” – in
another Middle Eastern nation is understandable.
Afghanistan was justified but is now languishing, and the intervention in Iraq
was both ill-advised and poorly executed. But the US need not apologize for
extending moral leadership when it is direly needed, or for pursuing distinctly
Obama should first and foremost be preoccupied with
these factors, not with fear that any form of intervention should be avoided due
to the learned mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan. America should also not
fear questions as to its regional positions.
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Its policy to support the
leadership in Bahrain is based clearly on our interest to safeguard the Gulf
from Iranian influence and threat, and to protect our strategic military
This is no secret, and Americans shouldn’t hesitate to be clear
and even bold about expressing its strategic interests, especially when they are
consistent with the national interests of its regional Arab allies. This should
not preclude our continuing efforts to promote political reforms in
Libya, however, is indeed different.
Despite claims by
analysts that Gaddafi is of minimal concern to the America’s national security,
his reign presents a genuine challenge to the White House. If the US were to
allow such a lunatic to hold onto power and slaughter his own people, any notion
of the US playing a stabilizing and positive role in the Middle East would be
The murky goals of Operation Odyssey Dawn are already being
criticized in capitals across the globe. It is simply unrealistic to suggest
that an international coalition can supply enough support for the Libyan
opposition merely by providing defense from the air alone. Furthermore, if the
White House continues to display an opaque and reluctant US role, it will only
serve to solidify a dangerous status quo: a fractured Libya in which an enraged
Gaddafi continues the bloodshed against an ill-equipped opposition whom the
international coalition refuses to meaningfully support.
Doing so will
perpetuate the everstrengthening view that Obama is a weak leader who has
refused to stand up for America’s principles and interests because of his
reluctance to use military force at a time when US forces are greatly
However, there is an alternative for Obama to pursue: providing
leadership for a coalition of Western and Arab nations to remove Gaddafi from
power – which most Arab states would welcome – and map out a transition toward a
proper system of governance unique to the tribal traditions of Libyan society.
It is not the easy thing to do, nor perhaps the most popular – but it is the
right thing to do, for the people of Libya and for US interests.
League’s courageous support for the no-fly zone was a central part of the
rationale for the current military actions. The US and its Western allies need
to be frank with the Arab world in both public and private.
The US could
start by pressing for a two-part strategy. First, clarifying unabashedly the
goals of the international coalition’s current campaign: this campaign is indeed
about the much-feared catchphrase of the moment: “regime
However, unlike Iraq, this effort will be one that serves to
support the Libyan people in finishing a job that they started.
first phase should include clear communications to the Libyan military and
officer corps that abandoning Gaddafi now will be the only alternative to being
killed, or arrested and tried for war crimes. This will encourage further
defection, especially of the high-ranking officers.
Second, an Arab-led
coalition should provide military support to oust Gaddafi, and then work
alongside a reconstituted Libyan military to combine the various Libyan tribes –
whose internal rivalry has been substantially mitigated in recent decades – into
a national council. Such a council could then serve to steer the country through
a stable transition toward a system of government that suits the still uniquely
tribal character of the country.
An Arab-led coalition could be composed
of a variety of Arab nations, including Qatar, which is already contributing to
the current campaign.
Chief among the coalition, however, should be
Libya’s reforming North African neighbors, specifically Egypt, Tunisia and
Providing leading support would reestablish Egypt’s leadership
in the Arab world and safeguard the stability of its neighborhood. The symbolism
of Tunisia’s aid would link the Libyan campaign to the revolutionary protests
throughout the region.
Morocco’s participation would be based on the
reforms it has set in motion, and would signal that the long-standing rulers of
the region are indeed prepared to engage in activities that provide a greater
voice to their people.
The Arab street is fully supportive of removing
Gaddafi, and for his neighboring nations, the more-derangedthan- ever ruler
continuing at the helm in Libya could significantly jeopardize the hope
generated by their recent reforms.
Rather than serve as the next domino
in the wave of Arab revolutions in 2011, Gaddafi’s hold on power could lead to
an even more radical regime in Libya, which has been known to pursue weapons of
mass destruction, and will now have the pretext to seek revenge against huge
swaths of its own population.
IN SHORT, the threat of a lunatic Gaddafi
with a vendetta against his people and the world is one that the global
community, and in particular his neighbors, cannot afford to test.
is why such a coalition to oust him should garner the support of both the United
Nations and the Arab League. It should have a limited mandate to provide
stability for the establishment of a new Libyan government.
is not only the right thing to do; it should not be an insurmountable task.
Otherwise, if an emboldened Gaddafi were to stay in power, US interests would
also undoubtedly be threatened.
The writer is professor of international
relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international
negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
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