By Michael Bowman
Two influential U.S. senators say the United States should help implement a no-fly zone over Libya as part of a broader effort to engage and assist those who are fighting totalitarianism and repression across the Arab world. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and independent Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut spoke at a Washington forum after returning from a 12-day trip across the Middle East and North Africa.
Senators McCain and Lieberman said popular revolts in Arab nations may bring unpredictable end results and hold potential pitfalls that could impact the United States. But, appearing at the Brookings Institution, they repeatedly expressed cautious optimism about unfolding events and changes taking place.
“For a long time, we [in the United States] have all said, ‘Where are the moderates in the Muslim world? Why aren’t they speaking up?’ Well, they have spoken up now, and more powerfully than we ever could have imagined in the streets of Cairo and Tunis and Benghazi and beyond. It’s really quite remarkable. And we will rue the day if we as a country do not play an active leadership role in doing everything we can to support the moderates, to support the transition to democracy,” said Senator Lieberman.
To that end, the senators recommend establishing a no-fly zone over Libya to impede forces loyal to its embattled leader, Moammar Gadhafi.
“American policy is stated by both the president [Barack Obama] and very emphatically by the secretary of state [Hillary Clinton] as ‘Gadhafi must go.’ If that is American policy, then it seems to me that we should try to help the people of Libya achieve, effectively, that goal,” said Senator McCain.
McCain said the United States is well-versed in establishing no-fly zones, having done so for years over Iraq. He stressed, however, that he is not advocating direct armed intervention in Libya.
The Obama administration says it has discussed the possibility of taking control of Libyan airspace with NATO allies. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said doing so would constitute ‘a big operation in a big country.’
For now, Libyan warplanes continue to strike opposition and rebel-controlled strongholds.
Senator Lieberman noted that protesters in many countries have made great use of social media like Facebook and other high-tech tools invented in the United States. He said America’s engagement with the region must include greater economic and technological assistance and investment.
Both he and Senator McCain said popular uprisings could spread far beyond Arab countries. “It is thrilling that this has happened. It is a direct repudiation of the Islamist Republic of Iran and their vision of government,” Lieberman said.
“I think the Chinese are obviously [worried], and I think [Russia’s] Vladimir Putin and his KGB buddies ought to be a little more nervous than in the past. I think this thing [popular uprising] is going to spread throughout the globe,” McCain said.
Both senators acknowledged Israeli concerns about sweeping and unpredictable changes in the Middle East. But Senator Lieberman noted that a successful transition to democracy in the region will bring the potential for what he termed “much warmer and mutually-beneficial relations.”