The U.S. balanced strategic interests with democratic values in response to the revolutions that toppled governments in several North African states. The U.S. avoided admonishing regional allies while not supporting regimes who had lost their legitimacy to rule.
Since the majority of U.S. citizens have been evacuated from Libya the U.S. has a free hand to formulate and encourage policy options that will insure that Qaddafi exits Libya soon. This exit will either be on Qaddafi’s terms or through the actions of those Libyans taking up arms against his regime. The U.S. and the international community have a number of options at their disposal. First and foremost a no-fly zone could be instituted to insure that Libyan fighter planes and attack helicopters are unable to combat the rebel groups now marching on Tripoli and other government held areas. Other options being considered are direct military actions against the regime, arming rebel groups opposed to the government and formally recognizing the rebel groups that have seized significant portions of the country. Whatever options are instituted, direct U.S. military intervention seems unlikely.
The revolution to oust Qaddafi has to be seen as a purely Libyan effort. If the U.S. were to become involved either directly or through black ops the many critics of the U.S. would use these actions to illustrate that the U.S. is an imperial power and this would delegitimize a new Libyan government. Further, the use of American troops in Libya lacks widespread support in Congress. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. John McCain clarified his earlier remarks made on another Sunday morning talk show about military options with Libya. McCain suggested, “Providing the so called provisional government…with the equipment and material they could use and the no fly zone I think could send a very strong message.” The Senator continued, “I’m not ready to use ground forces or further intervention than that.”
Prior to the evacuation of U.S. citizens, the Obama administration was concerned that should the administration take a tougher line with Qaddafi this would put a significant number of U.S. citizens at risk of being held hostage by the government. Because American diplomatic outposts were under light Libyan protection and because anti-government rebels were approaching government held areas Americans would have been caught in the middle and used as a buffer between pro-government and anti-government forces. One of these diplomats expressed to the Obama administration “certain kinds of messaging from the American government could endanger the security of American citizens.”
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, suggested in light of criticisms from many that the Obama administration was being too cautious as hundreds of Libyan protestors were being killed while the U.S. stood by and formulated a policy, “Overruling that kind of advice would be a very difficult and dangerous thing to do.” Rhodes continued, “That was the debate, and frankly we erred on the side of caution, for certain, and at the cost of some criticism…But when you’re sitting in government and you’re told that ignoring that advice could endanger American citizens, that’s a line you don’t feel very comfortable crossing.”
While calls for a no-fly zone are gaining support the U.N. Security Council has yet to impose one. Sen. John McCain on CNN’s “State of the Union” suggested, “Libyan pilots aren’t going to fly if there’s a no-fly zone, and we can give air asserts over there to ensure it.” Further, McCain argued, “Recognize some provisional government that they’re trying to set up in the eastern part of Libya, help them with material assistance, make sure that every one of those mercenaries knows that any acts that they commit, they’re going to find themselves in front of a war crimes tribunal. Get tough, and I understand that America’s security and the safety of American citizens is our highest priority. It’s not our only priority.”
The international community has instituted a number of punitive travel and economic sanctions on the Qaddafi regime. Among those imposed by the U.N. Security Council, in a rare showing of unanimity, Qaddafi’s assets were frozen including those of his four sons and his daughter and a travel ban was imposed on the Qaddafi family and a number of people closely associated with his government. Additionally, the U.N. Security Council has asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate any crimes committed by the regime.
Although important, a clause in the resolution exempts the African mercenaries who have been implicated in committing many of the crimes on Qaddafi’s behalf from prosecution at the ICC. After the vote to impose sanctions and other soft power approaches, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice said, “For the first time ever, the Security Council has unanimously referred an egregious human rights situation to the International Criminal Court.” Rice continued, “It’s very significant that the council has acted so swiftly and in unanimity.” The use of Algerian, Ethiopian and Tunisian mercenaries by Qaddafi harkens back to the days of the Cold War when British mercenaries and French legionnaires fought revolutions in many African and Middle East states. What makes Qaddafi’s use of them so abhorrent for the international community, is that in the digital age the bloodshed is openly discussed and depicted.
While economic and travel sanctions are an important development these are long-term sanctions and do little in the short term to hasten Qaddafi’s exit from the country nor do they end Qaddafi’s use of African mercenaries to kill protestors in Tripoli. With significant portions of the country in the hands of rebel groups the U.S. would be well advised to offer assistance and recognition for those areas under rebel control. Invariably, the rebel-controlled areas will remain out of Qaddafi’s reach even if he retains control over Tripoli.
Recognizing these areas would send a strong message to Qaddafi that the U.S. was prepared to help and assist these areas and in effect put a strangle hold on the regime. Arming any rebel groups, as some have suggested, comes with risks. If Qaddafi is ousted this will essentially leave a power vacuum in the country. For Qaddafi’s entire rule the entire state apparatus has been devoted to his leadership. With Qaddafi gone and if the U.S. had armed rebel groups this could create a volatile situation of U.S. armed groups fighting for control of Libya. In an editorial, Michael O’Hanlon and Paul Wolfowitz argue, “One urgent action where the U.S. could take the lead – and for which there is no time for delay – is to organize humanitarian relief for people in the liberated cities of Libya.”
The authors continue, “There is already an urgent demand for medical supplies. If the crisis continues, food and other basic requirements will likely need to be sent as well. This effort could be organized by private groups, like the Red Cross (with the support of governments), or directly by governments. Egypt and Tunisia would be crucial partners in such an effort. It is hard to imagine that they would not be cooperative. In addition, supplies could be delivered by ship to most of the coastal cities. If nothing else, such action would demonstrate genuine concern for the Libyan people; and would be well received throughout the Arab world.”
The lack of direct U.S. action to date can be more or less understood through the lens of avoiding a U.S. hostage situation. With American citizens out of harms way the administration is now able to pursue forceful unilateral and multilateral actions against Qaddafi. In a statement released by the White House detailing a telephone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “The president stated that when a leader’s only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now.”
While telling Qaddafi to step down is an important development it is just rhetoric unless the international community and in particular the U.S. acts. Not instituting a no-fly zone would be reminiscent of Iraq in the 1990s. The Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein’s direction inflicted significant death tolls on Shi’ite and Kurdish rebels because the international community had not barred the use of attack helicopters by the Iraqi military, only fixed wing aircraft.
Events in Libya are evolving and fluid. While referring any action to the U.N. Security Council is important, a no-fly zone would have immediate ramifications on the Libyan government as it uses its resources to combat rebel groups trying to take government held areas. A no-fly zone would also allow the U.S. to have a role in Qaddafi’s overthrow but would avoid making it appear that the U.S. was orchestrating events on the ground. The revolution has to be seen as a purely organic Libyan effort.