Random Thoughts on Libya, Qaddafi, War and Regime Change
President Obama made the case for his Libyan policy Monday evening during a televised address to the military, the American public and receptive ears throughout the Arab world. I don’t pretend to be a world-class foreign affairs guru, and I’ll let better-credentialed pundits make the definitive statements on the merits and defects of Obama’s policy. But I can’t control the random ideas that have been popping into my head on the subject, and I’m feeling compelled to share them with you.
Obama is pursuing an idealistic middle course, but is that enough? We’re going in as the good guys, defending the people of Libya against a ruthless dictator who would spare no expense to crush his opponents. But at no point during his half hour in the spotlight did the president use the “W” word (it’s not really a war, he implied) or even suggest that we topple Libya’s dogged dictator, Moammar Qaddafi, from his lofty perch. We’d like to see Qaddafi out of power, Obama told us, but we won’t emulate Bush the Younger and force the issue. No arrest, no grotesque hanging, no American ground forces in harm’s way, no exit strategy. (OK, so Obama’s policy has at least one point in common with Bush’s Iraq adventure.)
I generally support middle courses, as you’d probably guess. But moderate warfare didn’t serve us in Vietnam, it hasn’t worked in Afghanistan, and there’s no evidence that our “humanitarian” intervention in Libya will accomplish what we want it to accomplish. We’re simply aiding and abetting the more righteous of the two fighting factions, playing a supporting role (for now) as a VIP member of NATO.
Still, we don’t want to commit ground forces for the third time in a decade, and Obama is right to exercise restraint. At the same time, our participation has to be generating good will among the insurgents in Libya and elsewhere. (It always helps to build alliances with the right people.) The problem is that Obama hasn’t really stated a clear-cut goal for his Libyan operation — military, political or otherwise. I have to wonder how he’d respond to a Qaddafi victory.
Who exactly ARE these rebels we’re supporting? That’s the great unanswered question of the day. Are they proponents of secular Western-style representative democracy? Or do they harbor a furtive desire to establish a new Islamic caliphate in North Africa?
The rebels have fought with admirable grit, but no clear leadership has emerged. A former justice minister, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, seems to have galvanized the opposition politically, and General Abdul Fatah Younis, a former Qaddafi loyalist, is active in the rebel army. There’s been talk of establishing a provisional government until the Libyans can write a new constitution and hold free elections.
All we know for certain is that the rebels hate Qaddafi at least as fervently as we do, and that common interest seems to be reason enough to get chummy with them.
Qaddafi is a tough nut. Despite his increasingly mummified appearance (see photo), Qaddafi still reigns over his land like a latter-day pharaoh. The man has a malignant genius for holding power, like so many other obtuse, inhumane and insanely egomaniacal leaders.
Nearly cornered in Tripoli by rebel forces, he struck back and reconquered most of the rebel-held areas to the east. Now the rebels have been pushing westward again with the help of NATO air strikes. But as of this writing, Qaddafi shows no signs of buckling under the pressure. Give the man credit: he has staying power.
What if the struggle against Qaddafi devolves into a perpetual stalemate? Could we be looking at another decade of low-grade war against an intransigent strongman, with the U.S. using its manpower and strained financial resources to supplement a flagging effort by the NATO alliance?
And what happens when we hear ourselves summoned to aid rebellions in Syria, Bahrain, Iran or even Zimbabwe? Will the Obama Doctrine force us to heed the call, with or without the help of our NATO allies?
We’ve already embarked on too many of these ruinous missions, and we’re in danger of extending our already overextended empire to the limit. Each new adventure could bring us closer to the lip of the dustbin that holds the rest of history’s overextended empires. If we finally exhaust our resources and take the plunge, China would be all too happy to fill the power vacuum we leave behind.
Why can’t we just take out the S.O.B.? Wouldn’t it be exhilarating to bomb Qaddafi’s compound and blast him all the way to the Islamic version of hell? I generally feel a twinge of guilt when I squash the ants that have invaded my home, but I’d shed no tears over a terminally incovenienced Qaddafi. This is the man who engineered the Lockerbie terrorist bombing, after all.
I’ve always bristled at the notion that we can legally slaughter enemy soldiers by the thousand without remorse, yet it’s verboten (at least by the standards of the Hague Conventions) to assassinate a single belligerent civilian head of state. To me it reveals the elitist nature of war: innocent recruits are fair game, yet the top guy — the man who provoked the war in the first place — is protected by the system.
Here’s the catch, though: Qaddafi is a colonel and therefore not a civilian. He’s not protected by international conventions. If he persists in raining terror and destruction upon his own people, we probably should help him find his way to the next world.
Should we even be meddling in another country’s civil war? A nation’s leader is faced with rebellion and uses his military to pursue the traitors; in his quest for unconditional surrender, he sheds copious amounts of his countrymen’s blood. I can think of another leader who followed the same course of action, and his name was Lincoln.
Qaddafi is no Lincoln, of course. His motivations lack any pretense of nobility, high national purpose or compassion for the downtrodden. Quite the contrary; he simply lives to wield power. But a civil war is still a civil war. Do we really need to meddle in another nation’s family squabble, in yet another obscure corner of the world?
I think we have to see Libya in the context of the greater picture: the “Arab Spring” that sprouted in Tunisia, bloomed in Egypt and now promises to spread virally across the Muslim world. Think of the Latin American revolutions of the 1820s, the African liberation of the 1960s and the collapse of the Iron Curtain starting in 1989. Domino effects, all of them. If we want to see democracy flourish in the Middle East, we should do everything in our power, short of committing ground forces, to make sure the Libyan domino topples.
Bush II wanted to spread democracy by force. The Obama Doctrine is Bush Lite: encourage the rebels, come to their aid and hope for the best. Obama’s brew looks heady enough, but only time will tell if it can satisfy a powerful thirst for freedom.