The Case for Backing Libya's Rebels

One has to be morally blind not to be moved by the spectacle of brave Libyans standing up to Moammar Gadhafi's tanks and bombs and mercenaries. But moral outrage is an inadequate guide for U.S. action, particularly action that might put the lives of Americans at risk. Serious questions need to be asked and answered. Proponents of inaction need to ask and answer some questions as well, since doing nothing is a choice.

There are three important U.S. actions that could speed up Gadhafi's demise and stop the killing in Libya: recognize the newly formed national council in Benghazi as the government of Libya, provide assistance to the new Libyan authorities, and support the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya.

Unfortunately, the debate focuses too quickly on the last of these actions, even though the first two entail fewer problems and might well have greater immediate impact. A no-fly zone is a tactic, not a strategy, and its impact depends on the larger policy context--particularly whether the U.S. continues to apply the U.N. arms embargo to Gadhafi's opponents.

Recognizing the new National Council would affect the psychology of both Gadhafi's cronies and his brave opponents. Ending the mixed signals sent by U.S. hesitation over recognition would end any possibility of rehabilitating Gadhafi if he wins. Absurd as that may sound to us--particularly after President Obama has declared that Gadhafi must go--this is probably the outcome that Gadhafi's cronies hope for, and that his opponents most fear.

The more likely outcome if Gadhafi manages to survive--and honest proponents of inaction acknowledge this--would be a long-term isolation of Libya, with asset freezes, arms embargoes, and threatened prosecutions for war crimes. It would also be a crushing defeat for the U.S. in the eyes of the Arabs and the world. Preventing that may not rise to the level of a "vital" U.S. interest, but it is certainly important if we can do so without risking American lives.

It is a sound principle to support those who are willing to fight for themselves before sending Americans to fight for them. In Bosnia during the 1990s--under both Republican and Democratic administrations--we did the opposite, imposing an arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims and eventually having to send in American troops to impose and enforce a peace.

If we do recognize the new National Council--as France and Portugal have done--how do we respond to their requests for help? What would we supply and to whom? How would we deliver supplies? Could we control the eventual use of lethal assistance?

Recognizing the new National Council would affect the psychology of both Gadhafi's cronies and his brave opponents. Ending the mixed signals sent by U.S. hesitation over recognition would end any possibility of rehabilitating Gadhafi if he wins. Absurd as that may sound to us--particularly after President Obama has declared that Gadhafi must go--this is probably the outcome that Gadhafi's cronies hope for, and that his opponents most fear.

The more likely outcome if Gadhafi manages to survive--and honest proponents of inaction acknowledge this--would be a long-term isolation of Libya, with asset freezes, arms embargoes, and threatened prosecutions for war crimes. It would also be a crushing defeat for the U.S. in the eyes of the Arabs and the world. Preventing that may not rise to the level of a "vital" U.S. interest, but it is certainly important if we can do so without risking American lives.

It is a sound principle to support those who are willing to fight for themselves before sending Americans to fight for them. In Bosnia during the 1990s--under both Republican and Democratic administrations--we did the opposite, imposing an arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims and eventually having to send in American troops to impose and enforce a peace.

If we do recognize the new National Council--as France and Portugal have done--how do we respond to their requests for help? What would we supply and to whom? How would we deliver supplies? Could we control the eventual use of lethal assistance?

Paul Wolfowitz is a visiting scholar at AEI.

Photo credit: Flickr user WEBN-TV

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  • Paul Wolfowitz spent more than three decades in public service and higher education. Most recently, he served as president of the World Bank and deputy secretary of defense. As ambassador to Indonesia, Mr. Wolfowitz became known for his advocacy of reform and political openness and for his interest in development issues, which dates back to his doctoral dissertation on water desalination in the Middle East. At AEI, Mr. Wolfowitz works on development issues.


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