March 14, 2011

The momentum of the battle in Libya shifted toward pro-Gaddafi forces, as the Libyan dictator pushed closer to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi over the weekend, and President Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that “the regime will prevail.”

With government forces on the offensive, the question now facing U.S. policymakers is: Does it matter if Gaddafi wins?

Those cautioning against U.S. support for the Libyan resistance say “no” — an over-stretched America should not be drawn in to another woolly-headed humanitarian intervention. But putting aside the moral imperative, from a hard-nosed strategic perspective the stakes for the United States in Libya are high — and consequences of allowing Gaddafi to prevail could be disastrous for American national security.

If the Libyan dictator survives, he is not likely to resume being the benign Gaddafi of recent years, who handed over his weapons of mass destruction, renounced terrorism and made nice with the West. More likely, he will be the brutal Gaddafi of old — the state sponsor of terror who blew up Pan Am 103 over Scotland, killing 270 people; destroyed a French passenger jet over Niger, killing 171 people; bombed the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, killing two U.S. soldiers and injuring more than 50 American servicemen; established terrorist training camps on Libyan soil; provided terrorists with arms and safe haven; and plotted to kill leaders in Saudi Arabia, Chad, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia and Zaire. If he succeeds in putting down the rebellion, Gaddafi would probably emerge angry and emboldened — a dangerous combination.

If Gaddafi survives, he would almost certainly put a halt to the destruction of his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, begun during the Bush administration. Since 2003, Libya has handed over the key components of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and allowed the destruction of more than 3,300 aerial bombs designed to disperse chemical weapons. But Gaddafi still has stockpiles of chemical weapons — including mustard gas and chemicals for the manufacture of sarin and other nerve agents — that were slated for internationally supervised destruction. These are deadly toxins that terrorists are desperate to acquire.

If Gaddafi survives, his regime will probably not achieve a decisive victory. That means a stalemate in which eastern Libya could become a lawless, ungoverned area. Moderate rebel leaders — who pleaded to the West for help but failed to secure it — could be pushed aside by radical elements. Al-Qaeda could step in to furnish the weapons and training that America refused to provide — and be rewarded with sanctuary in exchange. As the United States continues to put pressure on al-Qaeda in the tribal regions of Pakistan, terrorists could migrate to eastern Libya, where several al-Qaeda leaders have roots, turning the region into a new terrorist haven.

If Gaddafi survives, despite President Obama’s demands that he leave Libya, it would send a message of American weakness across the Muslim world — and cement the perception in Arab minds of a United States beaten down by its engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and afraid to act. It was just such a perception of American weakness that emboldened al-Qaeda before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Allowing Gaddafi to prevail would embolden the extremists and invite further acts of terror. It would also embolden dictators from Iran to North Korea, who would see America’s lack of resolve against Gaddafi and assume they are free to wreak havoc without fear of a decisive American response.

One does not have to believe in the “freedom agenda” to see that the geopolitical consequences of allowing Gaddafi to survive are serious — and that the United States has a strategic interest in helping the Libyan rebels succeed in removing him from power. James Clapper has said the reason he believes Gaddafi will prevail is that his regime possesses superior firepower. That is a problem that can be fixed without sending American ground forces — by arming and training the Libyan rebels. The United States helped the contras remove the Sandinista regime from Nicaragua and helped Afghans drive out the mighty Soviet Red Army, without sending ground forces. We can help the Libyan rebels drive Gaddafi out without sending the Marines to the shores of Tripoli.

After Clapper publicly predicted Gaddafi’s victory, President Obama declared: “Let me be clear, again, about what our policy, as determined by me, the president of the United States, is towards the situation there. We are going to be in contact with the opposition, as well as in consultation with the international community, to try to achieve the goal of Mr. Qaddafi being removed from power.” Try? When the president of the United States declares that a dictator must go, he needs to do better than try — he needs to succeed.

Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the book “Courting Disaster” and writes a weekly column for The Post.