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

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Paul
Wolfowitz

What's new on AEI

We still don't know how many people Obamacare enrolled
image The war on invisible poverty
image Cutting fat from the budget
image Speaker of the House John Boehner on resetting America’s economic foundation
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 15
    MON
  • 16
    TUE
  • 17
    WED
  • 18
    THU
  • 19
    FRI
Tuesday, September 16, 2014 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
The Constitution as political theory

Please join us for the third-annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture as James Ceasar, Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, explores some of the Constitution’s most significant contributions to political theory, focusing on themes that have been largely unexamined in current scholarship.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 | 8:10 a.m. – Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 1:30 p.m.
Third international conference on housing risk: New risk measures and their applications

We invite you to join us for this year’s international conference on housing risk — cosponsored by the Collateral Risk Network and AEI International Center on Housing Risk — which will focus on new mortgage and collateral risk measures and their applications.

Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 2:15 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Speaker of the House John Boehner on resetting America’s economic foundation

Please join us as Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) delivers his five-point policy vision to reset America’s economy.

Friday, September 19, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Reforming Medicare: What does the public think?

Please join us as a panel of distinguished experts explore the implications of the report and the consumer role in shaping the future of Medicare.

Event Registration is Closed
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.