Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Crisis and Civil War in Libya: A Self-Interview

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By Barry Rubin

What's happening in Libya?

The mad, repressive dictator Muammar Qadhafi is winning.

Who is the Libyan opposition?

I don't know. I haven't seen a single serious journalistic or academic investigation to answer this question.

What is U.S. policy?

U.S. policy doesn't want Qadhafi to win.

What is U.S. policy doing to achieve this goal?

The president made a statement to that effect.


That's about it. U.S. diplomats are discussing the idea of a "no-fly" zone and other measures at the UN.

Would a "no-fly" zone help?

Not much.

When is a "no-fly" zone likely to be implemented?

After all the opposition has been wiped out by Qadhafi.

So then you're saying that U.S. policy doesn't make any sense?

Yes, that's what I am usually saying. Unfortunately, it's usually true.

Why then does the mass media and those who it does--unlike you--interivew not say these things?

You'll have to ask them that question. If you read what officials say to the media it all makes "perfect sense." They are talking about it. But this is what you get when there's no U.S. leadership but merely consultations with everybody else.

But here's something amusing. One of the main articles on Libya was written by someone who I know first-hand has absolutely no knowledge about that country. Once, on a different subject, a friend of mine told this person that she was going on television to be interviewed and was nervous because she didn't know enough about the subject. "Fake it, that's what I always do," he answered. That's how things work in Washington DC.

What should the United States and the West do? 

Investigate the opposition--which should already have been done--and if they are genuinely pro-democracy people and not radical Islamists then send them military and financial aid. If the president of the United States says that Qadhafi should go--and given his long record of extremism, terrorism, and anti-Americanism that response makes sense--then do something about it.

Here's how it is supposed to work: The president of the United States quickly consults with allies, announces a policy, and invites others to follow. That should take a total of 3-4 days followed by action. Now we have weeks of back and forth, ending with something watered-down, too little, too late, with too many compromises.

But, to be fair, here's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's response:

"The answer to why a UN resolution is because we need to have international support for anything that anyone does on behalf of the opposition and the civilians in Libya. To go unilaterally, whether it was a European nation, the United States, or an Arab nation, would fly in the face of the international community. And it would also limit the kind of support that would be necessary....I think that it is certainly fair to say that it took a while for people to feel that there was going to be international support, including Arab support, for any action. But now that's being considered."
That might well make sense but also note that what she says seems to rule out the United States taking unilateral action on anything, anywhere, any time. It's one thing to decide pragmatically that international support is useful, quite another to set up some ideological test about unilateralism "fly[ing] in the face of the international community," whatever that means.

Oh, by the way, though, European allies are totally confused trying to figure out what is U.S. policy toward Libya. The French are calling for the sending of Western troops there.  

I wouldn't favor sending troops. The overthrow of Qadhafi by people who would produce a more democratic and less radical government is in the U.S. interest and in the interest of Libya's people. But every day that nothing is done it is more likely that Qadhafi will prevail. Then the world will watch and say critical words while he executes hundreds, even thousands, of people.

Have we seen this before?

I'm glad you asked! On one hand, in 1991 the United States set the guidelines and put together a coalition to throw Iraqi forces out of Kuwait without standing around doing nothing and waiting for the UN to act. That was a success.

The second lesson of  that crisis, however, was that after the U.S.-led coalition triumphed there was a rebellion within Iraq against Saddam Hussein. The United States even imposed a "no-fly" zone, but then basically watched while Saddam unleashed a bloodbath. And a dozen years later, U.S. forces had to go in again to get rid of him.

Is that an important lesson for dealing with Qadhafi?

Yes, get rid of him now as long as you know he won't be replaced by something worse.

What could be worse?

A radical Islamist regime that joined forces with either the Iran-Syria bloc or Muslim Brotherhood forces to overthrow all the region's governments, start new wars with Israel, drive Western influence out of the region, and repress the people even more (though in Libya that last point might be impossible).

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