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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Friday File: What If Qaddafi Is Right?

by James M. Lindsay
March 4, 2011

Qaddafi leans on the shoulders of then Egyptian President Mubarak and President of Yemen Saleh during the second Afro-Arab Summit in Sirte

Qaddafi leans on the shoulders of President of Yemen Saleh and then-Egyptian President Mubarak during the second Afro-Arab Summit in Sirte. (Asmaa Waguih/courtesy Reuters)

Above the Fold. In the middle of a long, rambling tirade that is his trademark, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi declared on Wednesday: “If you destroy Libya, then Bin Laden will come, and Jihad will move from North Africa to Europe.” What if the “mad dog of the Middle East,” as Ronald Reagan used to call him, is right? My boss, Richard Haass, has made this point forcefully, going so far as to predict: “The United States will be involved in counterterrorism operations in Libya two or three years from now because you will have a government that does not control all of Libyan territory…it’s Somalia on steroids.” That’s not a reason to want Qaddafi to hold on, and that most certainly wasn’t Richard’s point. It is a reason, however, to be thinking not just about what the United States should do about the fighting in Libya today, but also about what it should do to prevent Libya from becoming a terrorism nightmare tomorrow. Here we face two problems: We don’t understand the dynamics of Libyan society very well, and deficit reduction efforts in Washington guarantee that U.S. foreign aid budgets will be shrinking just at a time when more aid is needed.

CFR Event of the Week. Turmoil in the Middle East has sent oil prices higher, triggering concerns that the spotty global economic recovery will stall. So CFR was fortunate this week to host Justin Yifu Lin, the chief economist and senior vice president of the World Bank Group. He discussed the global financial crisis and the best way to facilitate a rapid recovery. You can watch the full video or download the audio to go.

Read of the Week. President Obama met with President Felipe Caldéron of Mexico yesterday. Both presidents stressed the importance of continuing to cooperate to defeat drug cartels. As a new CFR Council Special Report by David Shirk points out, making progress in the fight against drug traffickers requires the United States to take politically tough steps to curb the U.S. demand for drugs and to stop the flow of guns from the United States into Mexico. Don’t count on it happening any time soon.

Blog Post of the Week. David Rothkopf dismantles the latest buzzword in the “wonkosphere,” G-Zero—what Chris Nicholson over at the New York Times calls “this year’s buzziest buzzword.” G-Zero is the idea that no country or group of countries is powerful enough to drive the global agenda. Rothkopf pulls off three feats in his post: he reminds us that the United States, China, and the European Union still drive world politics; he meditates on why policy wonks like to coin buzzwords; and without a hint of irony he coins his own—G-X—or the idea that which countries matter will vary with the issue at hand. Well played, Mr. Rothkopf.

Poll Question of the Week. The political turmoil gripping the Middle East may be the focus of cable news coverage, but it isn’t high on the list of the American public’s priorities. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this week provided a list of eight topics and asked respondents which one or two “should be the top priority for the federal government.” Only 1 percent named “Egypt, Libya, and the political unrest in Arab countries” as a top priority, and just 4 percent named it as the second top priority. So pundits and politicians calling for President Obama to do more on Libya will need to do a lot more convincing before the White House feels any political pressure to be decisive.

Chart of the Week. Disruptions in oil shipments from Libya have sparked new fears of an oil shortage and driven up prices on the world oil markets. The good news, as the chart below shows, is that while Libya is a major oil producer it is not a pivotal one. Saudi Arabia dominates world oil production, and it has substantial spare capacity. The Saudis have upped their production in recent weeks to help quell jittery markets. The bad news is that if political turmoil should hit Saudi Arabia no other country could make up the shortfall. The consequences for the global economy would be ugly.

Chart source: The Wall Street Journal

Too Good Not to Note. Garry Mitchell argues that Mark Twain’s advice to writers on the importance of knowing the difference between the almost right word and the right word applies equally well to America’s current predicament in the Middle East. New York Times editor Bill Keller reminisces about Mikhail Gorbachev’s and F.W. de Klerk’s falls from power and what lessons their departures hold for other countries. The New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki explores how the ongoing rebellions in the Middle East owe as much to economic repression as they do to political repression, and why political reform may produce economic stasis. Ben Heineman over at Power & Policy covers similar terrain. Michael Shear reports that wrangling over the federal budget may force President Obama to postpone his upcoming trip to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador. Walter Russell Mead writes that public sector unions are under pressure in blue states as well as red ones like Wisconsin.

Perils of Prediction. “I would like to suggest that Ronald Reagan is politically dead.” Tom Pettit, NBC’s political correspondent, on The Today Show, January 22, 1980, the day after Reagan lost the Iowa caucuses to George H.W. Bush.

Quote to Ponder. “The people that are sitting around saying, ‘[Obama’s] definitely going to be a one-term president. It’s going to be easy to take him out,’ they’re obviously political illiterates – political idiots, let me be blunt.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

A Reason to Smile. Opening Day is less than four weeks away.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Andy Manson

    [Excerpt] – It is a reason, however, to be thinking not just about what the United States should do about the fighting in Libya today, but also about what it should do to prevent Libya from becoming a terrorism nightmare tomorrow.

    One indisputable benefit of Gadaffi, and probably why he’s been tolerated for so long by the West, is that he’s vehemently anti-Islamic-fundamentalism. Most Westerners agree this is a good thing (although it’s probably not politically correct to say it too loudly). In terms of US involvement on the ground in Libya, there’s no money in it. This, and the fact that the regime is mainly armed by the Russians, is make active involvement problematical. Stay on the sidelines.

    [Excerpt] – Here we face two problems: We don’t understand the dynamics of Libyan society very well, and deficit reduction efforts in Washington guarantee that U.S. foreign aid budgets will be shrinking just at a time when more aid is needed.

    This is an odd sentence. In the first part, I’d want to know why the US doesn’t understand the dynamics of Libyan society…(aren’t some very bright people very well paid to do just that? ) In he second part, Libya may need a lot of things from the West, if it were to transition to democracy…but surely money is not one of them. Perhaps we don’t understand the dynamics of the Libyan economy well either?

    One thing that does come out of Richard Haass’ morning TV piece is the acknowledgment that the US simply has not prepared a policy on Libya. That’s OK…there’s no requirement for the US to have a policy on everything.

    Much credit is due to Mr Obama who isn’t going to be drawn into something upon which he lacks a clear policy.

    As a non-American observer, this is a refreshing change from the US Foreign Policy of the ‘W’ era, where total absence of either planning or policy was no impediment to running head-first toward the gun locker.

  • Posted by Ralph Gardner

    Libya is rich enough to make all it’s people middle class and not eager to blow themselves up.
    Alaska’s oil revenue sharing might be a good model for Libya.
    China’s exchange rate is a bigger problem taking many jobs that would have been in the middle east among other places leading to high unemployment and instability.

  • Posted by James M. Lindsay

    To Andy,

    Thanks for your comment. Two quick responses. On how little we know about Libya, U.S.-Libyan relations have been poor for forty years. Few Americans have spent any time there and developed an intuitive feel about the country. (For confirmation, go to Amazon.com and compare how many books you can turn up on Libya versus, say, Saudi Arabia.) Our lack of knowledge is especially true when it comes to knowing the people who could be coming to power as opposed to the people who are on their way out.

    On Libyan wealth, you assume that Libya’s oil infrastructure escapes untouched as the rebels battle Qaddafi. Perhaps it will. Or maybe not. You also assume that the fighting ends relatively quickly and we aren’t confronted with a massive humanitarian disaster. Again, perhaps so. But then again, maybe not. And even if Qaddafi goes quickly and the oil wells continue pumping, Libyan society and politics may not reconstitute themselves quickly or money may not be handed out equitably. One consequence of Qaddafi’s rule is that Libya’s civil society is underdeveloped. Programs to build civil society cost money.

    To Ralph,

    Thanks for your comment as well. We can certainly imagine how things in Libya could turn out well. But lots of countries rich in natural resources find ways to mismanage those resources and cheat their people. And the question people are debating is whether (or how quickly) Libya will reconstitute an effective government that exercises control over all its territories. If a new Libyan government cannot control its terrirotires, and “ungoverned spaces” appear, terrorism could become a significant problem, even if the vast majority of Libyans want nothing to do with it.



  • Posted by Andy Manson


    Thanks for the replies. On the first point there’s an interesting distinction between ‘we the people’ (the ordinary American citizen) and ‘we the policy-shapers’ (the fairly broad church of gatherers, analysts, and consumers of information, all of whom feed into policy-development). I was referring to the second group in my comment, and I’d hope that their information might come from slightly wider sources than amazon.com 🙂

    Seriously though it’s extremely interesting to observe just how much of the current info we’re getting from Libya is now coming out via Tweets, Blog Posts etc., a sign, surely, that the Libyan people are both more open to communication, and being ‘understood’, than many of us would have known previously. Many people I know are saying ‘Hey, these folks are mostly really just like us’.

    If you look at that in terms of the Libyan people ‘reaching out’ (in a way that has surprised many of us), then I’d suggest that in the rather unique crisis that is Libya today, there’s a similarly unique opportunity for the West to ‘reach back’ (in a way that may surprise many in the Arab and Muslim world). Let’s see if we’re smart enough to a) identify it, and b) take it.

    Re the Libyan economy – yes, a lot of maybes and ‘what ifs’ on that topic. That’s a wait and see.

    Last point from me – referring to Libya’s ability to re-constitute an effective government – I think the answer to that is pretty clear (there will be 2 significant problems for any new government: (i) uniting the loose confederation of independent tribes that is the Libyan population, and (ii) coping with an overall lack of political experience). This last point has been acknowledged already by the opposition leadership.

    The International community and / or the UN are potentially in a position to assist any new Libyan government in any post-regime-change scenario by acting as ‘Honest Broker’. Were this to happen, it would rely, for its success, on ‘big diplomacy’ having learned the lessons of Camp David and Oslo.

    Mr Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize within what seemed like five minutes of taking office. Perhaps we’ll be fortunate enough to see him show us some of his Peace Prize kung-fu in the coming weeks and months.


    Andy M

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