After weeks of dithering, Barack Obama finally spoke forcefully on Libya, declaring at a White House press conference last week: “Muammar Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave. . . . And the aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and dignity must be met.” Moments later, Obama repeated this call: “Let me just be very unambiguous about this. Colonel Qaddafi needs to step down from power and leave.” The president of the United States has spoken. The downfall of Gaddafi is now official U.S. policy. America’s prestige has been engaged, and our credibility is on the line.
So what is Obama going to do about it?
Very little, it appears. The administration is positioning military assets in the Mediterranean but seems unwilling to use them. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed deep reluctance about establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, and he recently gave an address at West Point in which he warned that “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.”
From his days as deputy CIA director during the Reagan administration, Gates knows there are options for removing a dictator short of sending in “a big American land army.” In the 1980s, U.S. policymakers figured out a way to roll back Soviet expansionism without committing American ground forces to every flashpoint around the world. There were motivated people willing to fight their own wars of liberation. They did not want American soldiers to fight for them. They wanted America to provide weapons, training, intelligence and other support so they could fight and win those wars themselves. By providing such assistance, America helped resistance fighters in places such as Nicaragua and Afghanistan liberate their countries. It was called the “Reagan Doctrine,” and the time has come to apply it in Libya.
Anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya need the same things the resistance forces in Nicaragua and Afghanistan needed:
l Intelligence. America can provide Libyan rebels with satellite imagery of government troop movements and intelligence on the government’s military strength, capabilities and intent — as well as tactical advice on how to capitalize on this intelligence.
l Weapons. America can provide the Libyan resistance with everything from guns and ammunition to more sophisticated weaponry, such as advanced artillery, night-vision equipment, and communications gear.
l Training. The United States can put its experience building up the Afghan and Iraqi military forces to use in Libya, providing advisers to train anti-Gaddafi forces in weapons, tactics and military strategy.
l Diplomatic support. The United States can play the role of diplomatic surrogate for the Libyan resistance, further tightening sanctions on Gaddafi, while rallying NATO and allies in the Middle East to assist in his overthrow.
Bipartisan support is emerging in Congress for providing such help. Sens. Kent Conrad, Joe Lieberman, Mary Landrieu, John McCain and Mitch McConnell have all publicly called for arming the Libyan resistance. The arms embargo adopted by the U.N. Security Council does not have to be an obstacle, since the resolution bars providing weapons “to the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” — the official name of the Libyan government.
The United States can interpret this as a ban on arming pro-Gaddafi forces, not the rebels.
Applying the Reagan Doctrine in Libya is not without risks. While most Libyans want to replace Gaddafi’s tyranny with democracy, there are also jihadists and al-Qaeda sympathizers in eastern Libya, where the rebellion is based. Look at any list of al-Qaeda leaders killed in drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions, and you will see many names ending with “al-Libi” (“the Libyan”). How do we distinguish between the Islamic radicals and those who share our aspirations for a free Libya?
America faced a similar challenge in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where we struggled initially to distinguish between moderates in the anti-Soviet resistance like Ahmad Shah Massoud and radicals like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Today, we have little intelligence to help us determine who the Massouds and Hekmatyars are in eastern Libya — and there is a danger that we could end up arming the wrong people. But our intelligence won’t improve unless we get advisers on the ground to start linking up with anti-Gaddafi forces. And if we can figure out who the good guys are, American support could help determine who leads the rebel column that takes Tripoli.
The risks of helping the resistance in Libya are real, but inaction carries risks as well. President Obama has declared that Gaddafi must go. Dictators from Iran to North Korea are watching and assessing the resolve of this president. It would do damage to America’s credibility if Gaddafi survived while Obama stood helplessly on the sidelines. And a long-term stalemate could produce the worst of both worlds — Gaddafi’s continued rule in Tripoli, with a Somalia-like ungoverned region emerging in the east that becomes a new haven for al-Qaeda. Our best hope of preventing such an outcome is to match the president’s words with action, and to help the Libyan people liberate their country.