The Coalition's Arab Allies: Firm Support or Window Dressing?

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MCS1 Nathanael MILLER / AFP / Getty Images

A night-vision image taken aboard the amphibious transport dock U.S.S. Ponce (LPD-15) shows the guided-missile destroyer U.S.S. Barry (DDG-52) firing Tomahawk cruise missiles in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya on March 19, 2011

Even before the first missile slammed into Libyan soil on Saturday, March 19, the U.S. and its key allies France and Britain advertised their Libya operation as the impassioned response of an outraged world, not just the West. The campaign, they indicated, was stoked into action by Muammar Gaddafi's "murderous madness," as French President Nicolas Sarkozy described the Libyan leader's style. One factor was crucial to that characterization: the vote on March 12 by the Arab League to support a no-fly zone over Libya. That decision handed Western leaders the political cover they needed to argue that this was not a West-vs.-Gaddafi battle — a kind of Iraq 2.0 — and to push approval through for military action in the U.N. Security Council.

But just two days into Operation Odyssey Dawn, the West's argument looks far shakier than it did before the bombing began. On Sunday, the Arab League's secretary general, Amr Moussa, visibly upset by the scenes of Western jets bombing Libya, told reporters that the military action went beyond the no-fly zone the league's 22 members had voted for. Moussa said he believed Arab leaders wanted solely to protect Libyan civilians. On Monday, after meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Cairo, he backtracked, telling reporters that "we have assurances that in such operations, the protection of civilians will be the main objective," then adding, "We are all united on this issue."

Yet such unity is fragile. Little concrete help has come from Arab countries so far. The brunt of the first days' bombing campaign — crucial to whatever happens later — came from the U.S., with 124 Tomahawk cruise missiles targeting key installations along Libya's Mediterranean coastline; French fighter jets fired the first salvo, taking out several of Gaddafi's tanks. And British Typhoon fighter jets have been moved to southern Italy to begin targeted strikes on Gaddafi's ground artillery. Qatar is the only Arab country known to have actively joined the campaign. On Sunday it flew four fighter jets into position near Libya to join the battle, according to the country's Prime Minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabir al-Thani, who told al-Jazeera that "there must be Arab states undertaking this action, because the situation there is intolerable." The United Arab Emirates has also pledged to contribute combat aircraft, though they have not yet deployed. In addition, the Wall Street Journal cited Libyan and U.S. sources last Thursday, March 17, as saying that Egypt was secretly supplying rebel fighters with weapons.

Indeed, for now there appears to be widespread Arab support — if not actual military contributions — to force Gaddafi's military to stop its advance on the rebels, in a last-ditch effort to stop the monthlong revolt from crushing defeat. "Gaddafi lost all legitimacy once he started to shoot his people a month ago," says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University in Dubai. "The Arab world is in this. The political will is there."

But that political will could well erode over time if the West becomes embroiled in a long, complicated operation. One problem, say political observers in the Arab world, is determining the West's exact motives. Sarkozy, U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have all said since Friday that the bombing was intended to protect Libya's unarmed civilians from slaughter by Gaddafi's forces — an argument complicated by the fact that the antigovernment protesters in February turned themselves into an armed rebel force, albeit one far outmatched by Gaddafi's military. Rather than an unprovoked onslaught against unarmed civilians, "what we are witnessing on the ground is a battle between Gaddafi forces and ragtag civilians who have grabbed whatever weapons they can find," says Taufiq Rahim, a visiting fellow at the Dubai School of Government.

What is more, many in the Arab world question the statements by Western leaders over the past few days that they are not aiming for regime change in Libya. While announcing the start of the bombing campaign on Saturday, Sarkozy said the operation was "not with a view to imposing a specific outcome" on Libyans. Yet Sarkozy himself, as well as Obama, Cameron and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has said repeatedly in recent weeks that Gaddafi should go. That, says Rahim, stirs unease in Arab countries, even among those who would like to see Gaddafi's rapid fall. "There is an obvious discomfort hearkening back to Iraq in 2003 and the specter of regime change," Rahim says. "This is all a bit of a flashback."