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Opinion

Opinion

Libya’s future hard to predict — or guide

April 3, 2011

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The only person who has spoken with clarity about the endgame in Libya is the mother of Eman al-Obeidi. Obeidi is the brave Libyan law student who burst into a Tripoli hotel to tell Western journalists she’d been gang-raped by government goons; she was promptly dragged screaming out of the hotel by secret police. A government spokesman said she was a whore and would be charged with slander.

Obeidi’s mother, interviewed by CNN in the eastern town of Tobruk, said of Moammar Gadhafi: “If I were to see his face before me, I’d strangle him. I’d like to drive to Tripoli and cut his head off.”

Unfortunately, no one else involved in the current Libyan conflict has been that direct.

Enough hot air has been flowing over the airwaves about Libya to make a substantial contribution to global warming. Yet, Americans are rightly confused about the Libya story.

Are we involved in another war, or a brief humanitarian intervention? Should we have gone in sooner, alone, with our allies, or not at all?

Does the Libya move herald a new Obama military doctrine, or prove he can’t exercise power? Do we or don’t we want to get rid of Gadhafi? If so, how?

President Obama’s Libya speech Monday night didn’t clear up the confusion. Republican presidential hopefuls were even more befuddled in their critiques.

So let me take a shot at providing a reality check.

The Libyan intervention (as Obama did clarify) was an exceptional act — a response to a unique humanitarian crisis. It does not mean we will intervene every time foreign civilians are at great risk.

Obama tried to avoid getting sucked into the Libyan conflict, which is far less crucial to U.S. concerns than rebellions in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, and political developments in Egypt. But, unlike in those countries, a huge international news corps was present in Libya; it would have documented Gadhafi’s massacre of civilians in Benghazi as U.S. ships stood by.

Obama was cornered into a move he knew would be bad policy. Had he waited for congressional authorization, Benghazi might have fallen.

Some Republicans, like Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, insist Obama should have gone in sooner, and solo. “We look to America to be the leader of the world,” says Romney. And Sarah Palin says our military should “strike hard, hit hard, not allow Gadhafi to be left standing, and then get out.” Hmm. That’s just the way the Bush administration imagined its invasion of Iraq.

Unilateral U.S. intervention in Libya would have been a disaster, placing the onus for the outcome on America’s shoulders. It would have revived the Arab narrative of U.S. colonial intervention. Those who tout it fail to realize how America’s status in the Mideast has plummeted over the last decade.

The postwar chaos in Iraq under George W. Bush and the failure to godfather an Israeli-Palestinian peace after both Bush and Obama pledged to do so have left U.S. credibility in tatters.

The Bush doctrine of top-down democracy promotion was discredited by its violent results in Iraq, and by the fact that Bush dropped it when the going got messy. After democratic elections led to a Hamas takeover of Gaza, the Bush team dropped its support for democracy activists in Egypt.

Moreover, American interests in Saudi oil, fighting terrorists, and curbing Iran will make it impossible to follow identical policies throughout the region. The administration is pushing for peaceful, democratic transitions in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, but if rulers fail to listen, we can’t go in with guns.

But back to Libya. Clarity is most lacking over what to do in the future. Obama was correct to turn over the lead to a NATO-Arab coalition and to rule out use of American ground troops. But can he align this limited military investment with his stated political aim of getting rid of Gadhafi? If the dictator stays, the NATO no-fly zone will have to continue indefinitely. Such a stalemate cannot be sustained.

The administration hopes for an internal coup in Tripoli, provoked by sanctions, bomb strikes, and pressure on Gadhafi to accept exile. It might work; the Libyan foreign minister just defected to Britain. But if the dictator holds on, more will be needed.

Will airstrikes slack off now that NATO is taking over military command, enabling Gadhafi to defeat the rebels? Obama has authorized the CIA to aid the rebels (agents are already in the country), but he has made no decision on sending arms.

Will the Brits, French, or Egyptians provide the heavy weapons and training the rebels desperately need, no matter how uncertain we are of the rebels’ makeup? Will we recognize a rebel government? These questions must be answered soon.

A long-running stalemate in Libya is not an option — and not just because Eman al-Obeidi and other Libyans deserve justice. Obama needs to return his attention to managing fallout from other, far more crucial, rebellions in the Middle East.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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