Apply the Reagan Doctrine in Libya

After weeks of dithering, Barack Obama finally spoke forcefully on Libya, declaring at a White House press conference last week: "Muammar Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave. . . . And the aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and dignity must be met." Moments later, Obama repeated this call: "Let me just be very unambiguous about this. Colonel Qaddafi needs to step down from power and leave." The president of the United States has spoken. The downfall of Gaddafi is now official U.S. policy. America's prestige has been engaged, and our credibility is on the line.

So what is Obama going to do about it?

The risks of helping the resistance in Libya are real, but inaction carries risks as well.

Very little, it appears. The administration is positioning military assets in the Mediterranean but seems unwilling to use them. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed deep reluctance about establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, and he recently gave an address at West Point in which he warned that "any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined."

From his days as deputy CIA director during the Reagan administration, Gates knows there are options for removing a dictator short of sending in "a big American land army." In the 1980s, U.S. policymakers figured out a way to roll back Soviet expansionism without committing American ground forces to every flashpoint around the world. There were motivated people willing to fight their own wars of liberation. They did not want American soldiers to fight for them. They wanted America to provide weapons, training, intelligence and other support so they could fight and win those wars themselves. By providing such assistance, America helped resistance fighters in places such as Nicaragua and Afghanistan liberate their countries. It was called the "Reagan Doctrine," and the time has come to apply it in Libya.

Anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya need the same things the resistance forces in Nicaragua and Afghanistan needed:

l Intelligence. America can provide Libyan rebels with satellite imagery of government troop movements and intelligence on the government's military strength, capabilities and intent-as well as tactical advice on how to capitalize on this intelligence.

l Weapons. America can provide the Libyan resistance with everything from guns and ammunition to more sophisticated weaponry, such as advanced artillery, night-vision equipment, and communications gear. l Training. The United States can put its experience building up the Afghan and Iraqi military forces to use in Libya, providing advisers to train anti-Gaddafi forces in weapons, tactics and military strategy.

l Diplomatic support. The United States can play the role of diplomatic surrogate for the Libyan resistance, further tightening sanctions on Gaddafi, while rallying NATO and allies in the Middle East to assist in his overthrow.

Bipartisan support is emerging in Congress for providing such help. Sens. Kent Conrad, Joe Lieberman, Mary Landrieu, John McCain and Mitch McConnell have all publicly called for arming the Libyan resistance. The arms embargo adopted by the U.N. Security Council does not have to be an obstacle, since the resolution bars providing weapons "to the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya"-the official name of the Libyan government.

The United States can interpret this as a ban on arming pro-Gaddafi forces, not the rebels.

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.

The risks of helping the resistance in Libya are real, but inaction carries risks as well. President Obama has declared that Gaddafi must go. Dictators from Iran to North Korea are watching and assessing the resolve of this president. It would do damage to America's credibility if Gaddafi survived while Obama stood helplessly on the sidelines. And a long-term stalemate could produce the worst of both worlds-Gaddafi's continued rule in Tripoli, with a Somalia-like ungoverned region emerging in the east that becomes a new haven for al-Qaeda. Our best hope of preventing such an outcome is to match the president's words with action, and to help the Libyan people liberate their country.

Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow with AEI.

Photo Credit: US Navy photo

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author


Marc A.
  • A member of the White House senior staff under President George W. Bush, Marc A. Thiessen served as chief speechwriter to the president and to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Prior to joining the Bush administration, Thiessen spent more than six years as spokesman and senior policy adviser to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). He is a weekly columnist for the Washington Post, and his articles can be found in many major publications. His book on the Central Intelligence Agency's interrogation program, Courting Disaster (Regnery Press, 2010), is a New York Times bestseller. At AEI, Thiessen writes about U.S. foreign and defense policy issues for The American and the Enterprise Blog. He appears every Sunday on Fox News Channel's "Fox and Friends" and makes frequent appearances on other TV and talk radio programs.

    Follow Marc Thiessen on Twitter.

  • Phone: 202-862-7173
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Justin Lang
    Phone: (202) 862-5948

What's new on AEI

image Getting it right: US national security policy and al Qaeda since 2011
image Net neutrality rundown: What the NPRM means for you
image The Schuette decision
image Snatching failure from victory in Afghanistan
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Event Registration is Closed
Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.