03.12.11

Can Arabs Save Libya?

U.S. intelligence thinks Gaddafi could win his civil war. Bruce Riedel on the dangers of America getting dragged into a quagmire—and how regional states can help.

The Arab League decisively voted on Saturday to endorse a no-fly zone over Libya, but U.S. intelligence thinks Gaddafi could win his civil war. Bruce Riedel on the dangers of America getting dragged into a quagmire—and how regional states can help.

Needed: an Arab and Muslim Option.  Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper has said what no one wants to hear:  Muammar Gaddafi has a good chance of winning Libya's civil war. He survived the initial rush of the revolt against him, and he has superior firepower, and sufficient organization and loyal support, to defend Tripoli.  Can he next recover the rebel-held east: Cyrenaica and Benghazi?  If so, a disaster would happen as Gaddafi wreaks revenge on his own people. A massive refugee flow would rush east to Egypt.

President Obama is rightly reluctant to get America into a third war in the Islamic world.  We can't afford another open-ended military adventure. Nor do we want to turn the winter of Arab revolutions into a war between America and Europe against Arabs and Islam. Gaddafi and al Qaeda—enemies for now—would both welcome foreign intervention, especially if it appeared to be dividing the nation. Memories of the last Western war in Libya—Mussolini's in the '30s—are deeply ingrained in Libya. Half the population died or went into exile, mostly in Egypt. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has also rightly said a no-fly zone is a difficult and expensive option, which will have only limited impact on the war. 

What we need is an Arab and Islamic answer, an Arab force to protect Benghazi and Cyrenaica. Egypt has practiced intervention there since a brief border war with Gaddafi in the 1970s.  Egyptian armor would be more than sufficient to stop Gaddafi, and Egypt’s American jets should be able to defend the east's skies. Other Muslim states, like Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Jordan, could provide contingents to help and to give political cover. 

The key is in Cairo. Is the military regime that replaced Mubarak willing to act? Or do they wait for a refugee disaster? Are the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square ready to help their Libyan brothers?  Is Amr Musa and the Arab League ready to save Benghazi? The Arab League has sent deterrent forces in the past to Kuwait and Lebanon. Can it help Libya? The U.N. is much more likely to back an Arab and Muslim force than it is to support NATO in this situation.

We can't afford another open-ended military adventure.  Nor do we want to turn the winter of Arab revolutions into a war between America and Europe against Arabs and Islam.

Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton should start working the phones sooner rather than later.  We could help with the diplomacy and logistics. We can help isolate Gaddafi, cutting him off from resupply aid from rogue regimes like Venezuela or Belarus by imposing an arms quarantine. Or if the Arabs prefer, we can stay out completely and let them defend their people and dignity. London, Berlin, and Paris should be helpful as well in urging a regional answer.  If Clapper proves right, time may be critical.

Libya could be the opportunity for America to start a new strategic partnership with Egypt post-Mubarak. That alone is a worthy goal. We want a strong Egypt to play a regional role against extremism. Gaddafi fits the bill perfectly.

Bruce Riedel, a former longtime CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At Obama’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.