Above the Fray: Survival is not an option

The US should be neither apologetic nor abashed in clearly stating its interests: a removal of Gaddafi.

Muammar Gaddafi 520 (photo credit: Reuters)
Muammar Gaddafi 520
(photo credit: Reuters)
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.
Instead, the 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 shameful.
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 power.
THE HESITANCY of the US to intervene – and “nation-build” – in another Middle Eastern nation is understandable.
Engagement in 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 American interests.
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.
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 bases.
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 Bahrain.
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 finished.
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 extended.
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.
THE ARAB 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 change.”
However, unlike Iraq, this effort will be one that serves to support the Libyan people in finishing a job that they started.
This 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 Morocco.
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.
That 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.
Ousting him 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.