The Libyan Conundrum

Why Obama needs to support the opposition as the Arab world awakens

  • Share
  • Read Later
Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

If there is one lesson for U.S. foreign policy from the past 10 years, it is surely that military intervention can seem simple but is in fact a complex affair with the potential for unintended consequences. So I'm glad that the Obama Administration is studying all options on Libya. It is more important to arrive at a smart policy than to start shooting first and ask questions later.

Those who argue that we have no national-security interests in Libya are correct in the narrow sense. But the Libyan case represents a much larger issue. The Arab world is experiencing a genuine awakening. People in the region have lost faith in the old order. Whether they can actually overthrow the government, as they did in Egypt and Tunisia, or merely demand real reform, as in Jordan and the Gulf states, they are searching for a new political identity.

For the U.S., this presents a powerful opportunity. For decades, Arabs have regarded Washington as the enemy because it has been the principal supporter of the old order — creating a bizarre series of alliances in which the world's leading democracy has been yoked to the most reactionary forces on the planet. It has also produced a real national-security problem: the rise of Islamic terrorism. Al Qaeda's first argument against the U.S. is that it supports the tyrannies of the Arab world as they oppress their people.

Now the U.S. has the opportunity to break the dysfunctional dynamic that produces anti-American hatred and violence. The Obama Administration has properly aligned itself with the hopes and aspirations of the Arab people, and it has called for governments in the region to engage in serious reform. But right now all these efforts have been sidelined. Libya is burning. Its people rose, and the tyrant gunned them down. Unless something changes, Muammar Gaddafi and his sons will be able to reassert control over the country amid a mass slaughter of its civilians.

This would be a terrible outcome. President Obama has made it unambiguously clear that he wants Gaddafi to step down. The U.S. is actively seeking his ouster. To have him survive would be a humiliation for Washington at a moment and in a region where its words still have great impact. It would also send a disastrous signal to the other rulers of the region — in Syria, Algeria, Iran — that Mubarak made a mistake and that the way to stay in office is to engage in mass slaughter, scare the U.S. away and wait out the sanctions and isolation. America would lose its opportunity to align with the rising forces of the Arab world.

So the U.S. must follow through in its efforts to get Gaddafi out of office, pushing all diplomatic levers and seeking maximum multilateral support. It should ask the Libyan opposition for a public set of requests, so that Washington is seen as responding to Libyans, not imposing its will. If the Libyans request military assistance, Washington should move in that direction. I don't believe that a no-fly zone is a magic bullet. It is a high-profile policy that puts the U.S. military directly into the conflict but would actually make little difference. Gaddafi's main advantage is not in the air but on the ground. He has tanks, armored vehicles and massive firepower. The basic military question is hence how to shift the balance of power away from him and toward the rebels.

Over the past five decades, the U.S. has had very mixed results when it has intervened, by air or land, in other people's wars. But it has done pretty well when it has helped one side of the struggle. Arming rebels in Afghanistan, Central America and Africa has proved to be a relatively low-cost policy with high rates of success. Giving arms, food, logistical help, intelligence and other such tools to the Libyan opposition would boost its strength and give it staying power.

Once Gaddafi realizes that he is up against an endless supply of arms and ammunition, he will surely recalibrate his decisions. There have been reports that he floated the idea of leaving office as long as he is guaranteed safe passage. At a weak moment, he made a plea that he be treated like Britain's Queen or the King of Thailand, a figurehead with no powers.

Some worry that if we arm the rebels, things might turn out the way they did in Afghanistan, where the freedom fighters became Islamic jihadists and turned their sights on us. But that's not really what happened. After the Soviet defeat, the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan, leaving it open to Islamic jihadists backed by the Pakistani military. The better analogy is to Chechnya, where as the civil war continued, the rebels became more radical and Islamic fundamentalists jumped into the fight and soon became its leaders. The best way to prevent al-Qaeda from turning Libya into an area of strength would be to have the fighting end — with Gaddafi's defeat. So let's help the Libyan opposition do it.