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Evan Schneider/UN Photo
The U.S. has a large stake in the outcome in Libya. Not because of its oil production but because of the dangerous nature of the Gadhafi regime–made far more dangerous by the current conflict–and because of the effect that Libya can have on the rest of the Arab world at a critical time in history.
Libya may not rise to the level of a “vital interest,” as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and others have assured us, but preventing it from becoming a haven for terrorists if Gadhafi survives comes very close. And while Libya is not as important as Egypt, as Vice President Joe Biden has told us, what happens in Libya affects Egypt and much of the Arab world. The Libyan fighting has burdened Egypt’s weak economy with tens of thousands of additional unemployed that it can ill-afford. The same is true for Tunisia.
Gadhafi’s fall would provide inspiration for the opposition in Syria and perhaps even Iran, whereas his survival would embolden the regimes in power there to cling on. The sooner Gadhafi goes, the greater the impact will be.
“…Congress should be criticizing the administration for its failure to support the military effort with nonmilitary actions…” – Paul Wolfowitz
In Libya itself, the U.S. might gain a much-needed friend in the Arab world. A British diplomat in Benghazi, the unofficial temporary capital of free Libya, has said that it is the first time during his many years in the Arab world that he has seen American flags displayed in appreciation. Even in Tripoli, still under Gadhafi’s control, people go to the rooftops to whistle in celebration during NATO bombing raids. After a visit to Benghazi last month, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman wrote: “Imagine walking in the main square of a teeming Arab city and having people wave the American flag, clamor for photographs with a visiting American official, and celebrate the United States as both savior and model.”
Appreciation for the United States in the Arab world is something to be welcomed at any time, but particularly now when demands for freedom are sweeping across the Middle East. Yet here in the United States, there seems to be little appreciation for this or for the brave Libyans who are fighting for their freedom with such courage.
Earlier this month, 168 members of the House of Representatives–including 87 Republicans–voted for the antiwar Kucinich amendment that demanded an end to all U.S. military operations in support of NATO in Libya. That resolution might have gained a majority of House members had Speaker John Boehner not offered a different resolution that was a milder rebuke of the administration’s Libya policy. All told, 330 members of Congress showed their unhappiness by voting for one or both of the resolutions.
That should have been a wake-up call for President Obama, telling him that he needs to make a better case to Congress and the public for the American stake in Libya. Instead, the administration has inflamed the congressional situation further by submitting a response to the Boehner Resolution asserting that the War Powers Act of 1973 does not apply to Libya because the U.S. is not engaged in “hostilities” there.
This assertion–which overruled the advice of the senior lawyers at the Justice and Defense Departments–was like waving a red flag in front of Congress. If its purpose had been to provoke outrage, it could not have been better designed to do so. Democrats may restrain their anger somewhat, in deference to the president. But Republicans feel no such compunctions and may even sense an opportunity for partisan advantage. If so, they should be careful what they wish for.
If congressional opponents of U.S. action in Libya actually succeed in withdrawing U.S. support for the NATO military operation, they risk being blamed for the survival of a murderous dictator and a deep sense of betrayal on the part of those struggling for freedom in Libya, plus the millions who sympathize with them throughout the Arab world.
Perhaps some members of Congress think they are making a purely symbolic statement of their unhappiness, as the administration will ignore Congress or the Senate will block any action that has teeth (such as defunding the operation). If so, they are setting themselves up–when the Libyan opposition does eventually triumph–for the president to claim a foreign policy success that they tried to prevent.
In either case, those opponents will bear some responsibility for prolonging the conflict and the suffering of the Libyan people. The American public may be unhappy with our military engagement in Libya, but some of that unhappiness stems from its indecisiveness. A recent Fox News poll recorded opposition to U.S. military involvement in Libya at 58% to 30%. But in the same poll, 53% of respondents thought that the U.S. and NATO should make it a priority to immediately remove Gadhafi from power (31% said otherwise).
Instead of weakening the president and our allies–and lending de facto support to a murderous dictator whom they abhor–members of Congress should be criticizing the administration for its failure to support the military effort with nonmilitary actions that could secure a positive outcome and gain broader support from the American people. While demanding that the president come to Congress for approval of the ongoing military operation, Congress should also point out that–despite the administration’s professed belief in “smart power”–it has thus far failed to take many nonmilitary actions that could hasten an end to this bloody stalemate.
The conflict in Libya is as much psychological as it is military. The key to Gadhafi’s removal is convincing those still fighting for him that they are fighting for a lost cause.
“…the longer the blood-letting continues, the more scores there will be to settle and the more capable future Libyan leaders will be killed.”
At a minimum, the administration should support the creation of a NATO training command to enable the opposition to make better use of the weapons it has. Such a facility would also give us insight into who makes up the opposition and allow us to help build the nucleus for effective security in a post-Gadhafi Libya. To avoid the administration’s self-imposed prohibition on “boots on the ground,” such a training facility could be based nearby in Italy.
While the administration continues to hope that NATO will get lucky and Gadhafi will be gone soon, it seems to have done little to encourage the opposition to prepare for the day after. It doesn’t help that there are very few Americans on the ground in Benghazi. But by engaging with opposition leaders now, we can help them develop realistic plans to implement the excellent eight-point “Vision for a Democratic Libya” that they announced in March.
So far, the Libyan opposition seem to have behaved quite responsibly, but there are still many questions about who they are and what will they do if they win. However, unless we want Gadhafi to win–which no one advocates–we will have to deal with a victorious opposition at some point. Hastening their victory will improve the chances for success afterwards, since the longer the blood-letting continues, the more scores there will be to settle and the more capable future Libyan leaders will be killed.
Instead of opposing U.S. support for NATO’s military operations, Congress should be criticizing the administration for its failure to support that effort with nonmilitary actions that could bring the conflict to a more rapid and successful conclusion. The mood in Congress in part reflects a public that is understandably weary of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Libya is not Afghanistan or Iraq. No one is suggesting sending in foreign ground troops, and the Libyans have made clear that they don’t want them. What they do want are the means to win their own fight for themselves. The sooner that happens the better.
Paul Wolfowitz is a visiting scholar at AEI.
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