James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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What If Qaddafi Hangs On?

by James M. Lindsay
March 2, 2011

Muammar Qaddafi waves in Tripoli before making a speech

Muammar Qaddafi waves in Tripoli before making a speech. (Ahmed Jadallah/courtesy Reuters)

Much of the talk about Libya over the past week assumed that Col. Qaddafi was about to be swept from power. I have had several conversations recently in which top-notch analysts debated whether to measure his future in days or hours. But with pro-Qaddafi forces now launching counter-attacks on rebel strongholds, President Obama may soon confront an ugly question:  What if Qaddafi hangs on?

Events may still save the administration from having to answer the question. Rebel forces repelled today’s attack on Brega, a strategic town that hosts an oil terminal. They have set up a revolutionary government in Benghazi. Divisions within Qaddafi’s inner circle could end his rule in an instant. Even if no Libyan Brutus appears, a regime that is hanging on can collapse with stunning speed if regime loyalists suddenly bolt for the exits.

Still, it is possible that Qaddafi stays in power, though perhaps holding sway over only parts of the country. He continues to control the army, and he has money for now to hire mercenaries. The sanctions that the United States and other countries have imposed may eventually bite, but that will likely take time. In the interim, regime supporters who had been thinking that the jig was up may now have decided that the wind is blowing the other way.

So what to do? Direct U.S. military intervention is off the table. The American public has no appetite for another war given that U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan and Iraq. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates doesn’t seem to either. As he said in his speech at West Point last week:

But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.

Even if political forces in the United States lined up differently, it’s hardly in U.S. interests to send combat troops into yet another Muslim country. No matter how pure our motivations are, it will be taken in the region as more evidence that the United States is waging a war on Islam. That would only help jihadist recruiters.

We might, if the carnage becomes bad enough, see Washington work with other countries to establish a no-fly zone. But that at best would limit Qaddafi’s ability to punish the rebels from the air. It wouldn’t remove him from power.

The United States could, as my colleague Elliott Abrams points out, arm the rebels. But that policy has its own drawbacks. It may merely increase the carnage, rather than give the rebels the upper hand. Sophisticated weapons require training to use, but we aren’t going to send in trainers.

Equally troubling is the fact that the weapons we want Libyans to use against Qaddafi could wind up in the wrong hands and used against us. There’s a real risk that what succeeds Qaddafi’s regime is not a stable, broad-based government but something that looks more like Somalia.

Asking others to arm the rebels doesn’t solve the problem. Would the Saudis, for instance, be as careful to make sure that weapons don’t fall into the hands of Islamic extremists who are as mad with the West as they are with Qaddafi?

We could provide humanitarian relief but otherwise stand aside while Libyans fight for their freedom. It sounds cold-hearted, especially when cable news, YouTube, and Twitter allow us to see what is happening in Libya in real time. But we have chosen not to act many times before when people struggled to overthrow a tyrant. Our moral outrage gave way to calculations of self-interest or political expediency.

Standing aside, of course, that we will have coupled strong words—Secretary Clinton says Qaddafi must go now—with no deeds. That’s an unappealing combination. But regrettably, we are likely to see a lot of empty words on Libya.

None of our options are terribly appealing, which is frequently the curse of the global superpower. Perhaps events will save us from having to decide. If they don’t, and given what I know now, I lean toward an enhanced version of standing aside—providing humanitarian aid, tactical military intelligence to rebels where it might be helpful, and doing whatever we can clandestinely to sow dissension among Qaddafi’s supporters. But in the end it is up to the Libyans to liberate their country.

What would you have the administration do?

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Jorge Garzon

    The U.S. may still be the only superpower but the world already works as if we were in a multipolar one. If the U.S. do not send arms to Libyan rebels trying to overthrow Qaddafi while trying to build relations with the future leaders of that country, others will do it sooner or later, perhaps Iran is already doing so and trying to make the most of the Libyan mess. Most likely, the regional power Egypt, which has already redefined its interests, may take advantage of its large border with Libya and try to gain influence over its small neighbor by, at least clandestinely, supporting the rebels. Besides Libyan rebels are resisting with very rudimentary military hardware. Perhaps what they need is no hightech equipment but just assault rifles. That can be provided by any regional state or great power interested in good relations with the future government.

  • Posted by Peter

    Your views about giving the Islamic fanatics a recruiting tool if we help more actively is nonesense, in my opinion. The same thing was said about President Bush’s policies and there is simply no evidence it’s true, or would be in this case–only opinions based on Western views of the Arab Muslim mentality that events over the past weeks should have shattered.

    So what can we do? Why not send a select number of clandestine CIA or special opertions forces in to help the rebels with tactics and coordination? Why not drop food and medical supplies, military communications equipment and similar non-lethal items that could help sustain the rebels and give them better operational capabilities? Why not unilaterally create a no-fly zone, especially when the rebels are requesting one?

    Other than the possible exception of the no-fly zone my guess is that there would be little, if any, negative consequences. We could also provide drones over battlefields and help with military tactics on the ground from afar.

    To say the the USA–the USA!–simply can’t do anything under these circumstances suggests that we have become little more than a third-rate power. Nonesense!

  • Posted by John E. Mudd

    After all is said and done, we have two problems. One, As long as the civil war continues, oil prices will increase. Two, the most powerful nation in the world, who was fighting as rebels for its independence more than 200 years ago, received help from two foreign countries, France and Spain. Are we to sit on the sidelines while a crazy man slaughters its population? I hope not.

  • Posted by James M. Lindsay

    To Jorge:

    Your analysis notes at least one reason why Libya’s post-Qaddafi future—and one will come eventually—is uncertain. Many countries will try to influence in how Libya develops, and they will try to recruit Libyans who reflect their world view.

    To Peter:

    Actually, there is abundant evidence that U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have given jihadists a recruiting tool. Google Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for starters. Or Google Anwar al-Awlaki and go from there. You can certainly argue that the benefits of U.S. action swamp the costs of energizing Al Qaeda sympathizers, but to ignore the costs entirely is bad analysis.

    To John:

    The French aided the American colonists for reasons of state—to stick it to the hated English in their case—and not reasons of sentiment. I suspect the same will be true for the United States today. The question for President Obama in the days (weeks? months?) ahead isn’t going to be whether to help the rebels, but how to do so in ways that minimize the costs to the United States and maximize the chances of a reasonably good outcome (or, if you prefer, minimize the chances of a bad one). There’s a lot to argue over there because there are so many unknowns.

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