WASHINGTON– After having declared in starkly clear terms that “Gaddafi has got go”, what is Washington going to do, right now, to make him go? Not at all clear. And this is worrisome, as America cannot afford to issue such strong statements with no follow on action. Consider this. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a March 8 interview with Kay Burley of Sky News was really uncomfortable in declaring America’s support for a “no fly zone” over Libya. She went to great lengths in prefacing every answer with the proviso that this –the no fly zone– is not what the US wants; but (supposedly) what the Libyan people are asking for. And this no fly zone –if it will ever be enforced– would not be a US initiative; but an initiative that would emerge from a broad consensus within the international community: the UN, NATO’s North Atlantic Council, the Arab League, or whoever else.
Is America leading?
Well, something does not add up here. It is alright for the US to consult and seek agreement on actions that –let’s not kid ourselves– entail hostilities (read that as “war”) with Libya. We have already had enough US-led, (mostly) unilateral, military interventions in this last few years. Adding another one, may be too much. So, looking for consensus and the broadest possible participation and endorsements is a good idea.
Except for one thing: is the US leading or following on Libya? Is America a world power willing to use its clout to influence others? Or is Washington’s position merely to go along with whatever “all the others” decide to do? Quite frankly, I am no longer quite sure. After having gone on a limb by declaring that Gaddafi’s ousting is the only acceptable outcome of this crisis, now I do not see much US leadership.
Obama made it clear: Gaddafi has got to go
The way I see this, at the very beginning, the US Government was a bit coy on the whole Libya uprising that started on February 15. But then we got a pretty clear idea as to where America stands from president Barack Obama himself. Because of his use of violence against his own people –the president more or less said– Colonel Gaddafi has lost his legitimacy to be Libya’s ruler and has got to go. More such statements from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, followed. Now this is stark; and clear. There does not seem to be much room for compromise.
America says that Gaddafi is too discredited and he is no longer a legitimate head of state. End of story. This clear US position is probably quite reassuring for the people of Benghazi who are trying to get rid of Gaddafi, while putting together some semblance of a credible, provisional government. As they struggle, the most important world power just signaled that it ditched Gaddafi.
What will Washington do now?
But now, many more days into this conflict, after having done the easy stuff, (condemnations, sanctions, freezing of assets, and the like), the US Government is confronted with the difficult stuff. What is America going to do “to make Gaddafi go”, as he does not seem to be inclined to take Washington’s thoughtful advice? Looking at Secretary Clinton’s replies to the Sky News interview mentioned above, not much. America will consult, will listen to and will follow what the international community will agree to do. (And bear in mind that the agreement could be to do nothing. If we are waiting for a UN mandate, it seems unlikely that Russia and China will endorse any Security Council Resolution authorizing no fly zones and/or the use of force through other means). Besides, does America have a recommended policy that it wants to see implemented? Not clear at this stage.
Look, it has been noted by many that this is a nasty affair. While there is an easy consensus in loathing Gaddafi, the situation on the ground is murky. Most likely the US has unreliable intelligence on who’s who within the composite groups fighting Gaddafi. It would be naive to assume that all of them are “good guys”. Most likely, there are some Islamic radicals and also many opportunists, people who were with Gaddafi until yesterday and then decided to switch sides, as they bet he would lose. So, getting into yet another conflict –even assuming no ground troops– with uncertain partners is no light matter.
Stay out of it?
Richard Haas, president of the influential New York based Council on Foreign Relations, in a lengthy The Wall Street Journal op-ed piece (The U.S. Should Keep Out of Libya,March 8, 2011), made a fairly convincing argument as to the wisdom of staying out of the whole thing. Too messy –Haas maintains– and not really at the top of US national security priorities and concerns. Again, reasonable, prudent points. Except, in my opinion, that this warning comes too late.
Washington is committed to making the Libyan dictator go
Indeed, America’s top leadership has already declared not that “perhaps Colonel Gaddafi should consider the idea of relinquishing power”. No, Washington has said that he lost the legitimacy to be considered the rightful head of state and he has to go. But Gaddafi, (unless there is stuff going on behind the scenes, whereby he is negotiating terms for his exile, or something like this), has declared that he is going nowhere; and that he will fight to the end the –according to his propaganda– al-Qaeda-inspired and led rebellion. The situation on the ground so far at least indicates that Gaddafi’s positions in Tripoli and the West of the country are still solid; while his forces are trying to reconquer lost ground.
Start with massive humanitarian intervention for the Benghazi Libyans
So, what are we going to do to make him go? For starters it would be comforting to see a much more aggressive US-led humanitarian intervention. The Benghazi rebels need everything. Start by providing medical help, supplies, surgical equipment. This is the stuff that goes fast when hospitals need to treat hundreds of casualties every day. Provide logistical support. Give them ambulances, whatever. Give them cell phones, anything that may help their internal communications and improved cohesion. This actions, still short of military engagement, would be psychologically very valuable, as they boost the morale of the insurgents; while they would signal to the weaker links within Gaddafi’s camp that the US is solidly on the other side. While some of this is humanitarian action is taking place, from what the public can glean, the US do not seem to be involved in an all out effort.
Be prepared to go further, if necessary
And even if Washington would engage in a serious humanitarian operation, we should consider that this may not be enough. Clear signs of American supports for the Benghazi Libyans may not be sufficient to cause cracks among Gaddafi loyalists. And so, what would America do to make the dictator go?
America’s credibility now at stake
This is no small matter. Having gone this far, having declared that Gaddafi has got to go, Washington cannot forget about the whole thing, and just sit back and watch as the people on the ground who want to make him go are fighting for their own survival. Does America want to lead, or does president Obama want to be regarded as the president of a “has been” power that barks but cannot bite?
As I said above, Richard Haas and others who recommend to stay out of this Libya mess may be right in principle. But it is too late now to back track. The very credibility and prestige of the United States of America has been invested and is at stake right now.