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. ~Fareed Zakaria
Well, count me among the people with a “narrow” vision, because I still don’t see how the regional search for a new political identity merits the U.S. taking sides in someone else’s civil war. Advocates of a no-fly zone and/or arming the rebels keep falling back on a few lines of argument, and Zakaria (in favor of arming the rebels) rehearses a couple of these:
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.
There are some countries where it might make sense for the U.S. to align quickly with emerging political forces, but Libya is probably the worst case available. Of all the authoritarian regimes in the region, Libya’s is among those with which the U.S. has had the weakest relationship. The U.S. normalized relations with Libya after it suspended its weapons programs, and American companies were doing business there, but the U.S. has not become Gaddafi’s patron in the same way that it was Mubarak’s. Working to secure Gaddafi’s downfall isn’t going to win the U.S. that much goodwill, especially since Washington isn’t giving up very much in the process. Zakaria underestimates the degree to which the history of U.S. policies in the region has created so much distrust that any U.S. policy of subverting an Arab government by force will be perceived badly.
As far as American security interests have been concerned, Gaddafi has been more accommodating in the last decade than he had ever been before. Many Libyans have been radicalized over the decades of Gaddafi’s rule, but this was also going on before the U.S. restored ties with Libya, and at least some of these radicalized figures are among the rebels fighting against Gaddafi right now. No doubt there are those who maintain undue confidence in the government’s ability to discern “good guys” from “bad guys” as they would say, but what is striking is how little this matters to some of the people arguing for arming the rebels. Here’s Marc Thiessen:
Applying the Reagan Doctrine in Libya is not without risks. While most Libyans want to replace Gaddafi’s tyranny with democracy, there are also jihadists and al-Qaeda sympathizers in eastern Libya, where the rebellion is based. Look at any list of al-Qaeda leaders killed in drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions, and you will see many names ending with “al-Libi” (“the Libyan”). How do we distinguish between the Islamic radicals and those who share our aspirations for a free Libya?
America faced a similar challenge in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where we struggled initially to distinguish between moderates in the anti-Soviet resistance like Ahmad Shah Massoud and radicals like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Today, we have little intelligence to help us determine who the Massouds and Hekmatyars are in eastern Libya – and there is a danger that we could end up arming the wrong people. But our intelligence won’t improve unless we get advisers on the ground to start linking up with anti-Gaddafi forces. And if we can figure out who the good guys are, American support could help determine who leads the rebel column that takes Tripoli.
If there is even a remote chance that the U.S. could end up arming “jihadists and al-Qaeda sympathizers,” which Thiessen admits to be quite possible, I’m not sure why the debate is still continuing. For the sake of a triple-bank-shot effort at public diplomacy with other Arab publics, we’re contemplating sending weapons to rebels whose cause we don’t fully understand and some of whom are obviously hostile to the U.S.? Arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan was a questionable decision when it was made, but at least it had the merit of being part of a larger strategy of resisting Soviet power. Arming Libyan rebels against Gaddafi doesn’t have any similar strategic purpose.
Supporting rebels against Gaddafi isn’t going to make other authoritarian rulers more reluctant to use force against opposition. It’s going to give them an incentive to do as much damage as quickly as possible to the opposition before foreign support is forthcoming. If the U.S. arms the rebels in Libya, and Libya becomes the model of what other governments can expect from the U.S., the U.S. has committed itself not only to supporting rebels in this case but also to doing the same in each civil war that follows the same pattern. After all, we wouldn’t want to signal to other governments that “the way to stay in office is to engage in mass slaughter.” Backing Libyan rebels won’t serve as a deterrent against brutal crackdowns elsewhere unless other governments believe that the U.S. is willing to keep doing this each time it happens, and no one believes this.
Zakaria’s column makes an excellent case that Obama should not have said that he thought Gaddafi should go. Saying that the U.S. wants him gone creates the expectation that the U.S. will work to bring that about, which makes it that much harder to do the correct thing for U.S. interests, which is to avoid being pulled into a civil war that has nothing to do with us. So we can agree that Obama blundered by calling for an outcome that he has no intention of realizing. It doesn’t follow that Obama should compound an error of saying the wrong thing by doing something even more unwise.