Obama's Last Chance on Libya

As Gaddafi's forces advance unconstrained, taking yet another city from the rebels, President Obama is sacrificing his own ideals—and America's security. By Christopher Dickey.

A Libyan rebel fighter fired on a government jet on March 9. (John Moore / Getty Images),John Moore

The hesitant Obama administration and most of its European allies are sending all the wrong messages as they stand by and watch Muammar Gaddafi's Western-armed war machine carry out a blitzkrieg against the Libyan people. The latest example came Tuesday as the G8 foreign ministers, meeting in Paris, failed to endorse a no-fly zone to ground Gaddafi's air force even as yet another rebel-held city, Ajdabiya, fell before his onslaught. The siege of Benghazi, a city of a million people, looks ready to begin.

Of course, no one in Europe or the United States wants another quagmire in the Muslim world, and the latest polls drive that point home. According to the Pew Research Center a resounding 63 percent of Americans say the U.S. has no responsibility to act in Libya. A plurality opposes a no-fly zone, a huge majority is against airstrikes, almost half are against sanctions.

So what’s a leader like President Barack Obama to do? Well, one might say, “lead.” Because, whether war-weary Americans want to believe it or not, the lack of direction in American policy right now—opposing Gaddafi but finding every excuse not to act against his forces—is going to be hugely damaging to their interests. As Jane Kinninmont of Chatham House in London put is, “The United States faces a crisis of credibility in the Arab world.” And that translates into all sorts of dangers.

So what’s a leader like President Barack Obama to do? Well, one might say, “lead.”

Just for starters, Washington’s reluctance to take concrete action against Gaddafi’s forces confirms the idea that a dictator (a Ben Ali or a Mubarak) is more vulnerable if he is America's friend than its enemy (or in Gaddafi's case, its frenemy).

Already we see that the autocrats in Yemen and Bahrain, heartened by Gaddafi's example, are stepping up the use of force against opponents. They’ve been American allies but are now distancing themselves from unreliable Washington. Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh recently went so far as to accuse the United States of fomenting the discontent in his country. And when the increasingly feckless royal family in Bahrain smashed peaceful protests only to see marauding gangs emerge that were out of anyone’s control, the king invited the Saudis to send in troops. Not a good sign that democracy will be allowed to flourish there.

One might ask, as many Arabs do, whatever happened to Obama's oft-repeated rhetoric about Gandhi and Martin Luther King and getting on the right side—the people’s side—of history? When Obama spoke to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009 about the power of nonviolence he sounded like he meant it. When he endorsed the Egyptian uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, saying “this is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied,” he sounded like he meant that, too -- even though he waited until Mubarak had stepped down to say it. But what has all that Obamaesque earnestness done for the people fighting for their dignity in Libya? Less than nothing.

I bring up these moral arguments because they are ones that Obama has made in the past. But the real reason to intervene in Libya with a no-fly zone and even, as the French have suggested, a no-go zone to separate the two sides while the rebels recover, is that such a move will make Americans safer.

As things stand now, Western inaction in Libya plays right into the hands of those same extremists we are supposed to be fighting around the world. Only very hard, very fanatical forces can endure in the face of ferocious repression like that inflicted by Gaddafi. Enter Al Qaeda. One of its top commanders in Afghanistan, Abu Yahya al-Libi, himself a Libyan, scoffed over the weekend at the U.S. government and its allies that “pretend to cry” for the people Gaddafi is killing. The longer the war and repression go on, the stronger Al Qaeda’s arguments, and then its ranks, are likely to become.

As we know, Mad Mo regards all Western leaders as whores for his oil, as indeed they have proved to be many times over. Now that the nuclear energy alternative is being discredited by the disaster in Japan, Middle Eastern petroleum is going to become more important than ever. And since Gaddafi’s offensive over the last few days has effectively regained control of Libya’s oil-and-gas-producing heartland, you can look for the ranks of his apologists to grow. “We have the expression, 'Who dines with the Devil must sup with a long spoon,' wrote a columnist in Oil & Gas Journal. But dine they are more than willing to do.

Apparently Obama is mulling over such moral and practical concerns. And the polls. And mulling, ever so earnestly, a little more. And thinking. And mulling. Earnestly.

That’s just not good enough. Gaddafi is and always has been “a mad dog,” as President Ronald Reagan put it, and a very vengeful one. You do not taunt him unless you are going to take him out, which was the mistake that Reagan himself made at the end of the day.

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After the United States bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986 with F-111s flying out of British bases, but failed to hit Gaddafi, the Reagan administration claimed that the Libyan leader had nevertheless backed away from terrorism. But that was pure self-delusion. The attack had just the opposite effect. Before the series of military clashes with American forces in the months leading up to the April '86 bombing raid, Gaddafi had not supported terrorist attacks on the United States or its citizens. His focus was Israel. Afterward, Gaddafi's minions hit U.S. and UK targets all over the map. He sent weapons to the Irish Republican Army, and he blew up Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. There was even an effort to set off bombs disguised as fire extinguishers in New York City, which was averted only by luck.

You can see the shape of things to come in Gaddafi's speech on television Tuesday night: "France will be vanquished, America will be vanquished, Great Britain will be vanquished," he declared.

So, count on this: Obama's ineffectual policy will make enemies of the Libyan people and many others in the Arab and Islamic world who might otherwise have been won over by a sympathetic West. And Gaddafi, the old devil, will become as dangerous an enemy, or oil-pumping "friend," as he ever was.

Christopher Dickey is a columnist for The Daily Beast and Newsweek magazine's Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor. He is the author of six books, including Summer of Deliverance, and most recently Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—the NYPD.