Obama’s Next Step In Libya? – OpEd


One wonders whether the hesitance of Barack Obama to go all out against Libya’s brutal dictator, Moammar Qaddafi, may be attributable to his fear that this may turn out as a repeat performance of what happened to the first American military intervention overseas along ‘the shores of Tripoli’ more than 200 years ago.

Although this episode at the beginning of the so-called Barbary War, is now memorable, many militarists or historians do not see the first battle as glorious since the pirates, then the scourge of the Mediterranean, took over the American frigate that brought them over.

But two years later, eight American Marines joined by some 500 mercenaries – –  some of them Arabs – –  marched from Alexandria, Egypt, and were able to capture the (Libyan) town of Derna, where for the first time in history the U.S. flag was raised on foreign soil. This episode is memorialized in a line in the Marines’ Hymn – “the shores of Tripoli.”

The record, however, shows Obama saying time and again that “it is U.S. policy that (Qaddafi) needs to go.” When and how will this be undertaken is anybody’s guess. In fact, the American leader, had surprisingly failed to cancel his five-day official tour of three Latin American states – – Brazil, Chile and El Salvador – since  the U.S. has been playing a leading role in imposing a U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya. He, however, chose to coming home a few hours earlier than scheduled to contain the backlash within Congress where some key members, particularly Republicans, are anxious about the U.S. military role in Libya. The reported readiness of Britain and France to assume a leading NATO role in the air campaign, heretofore undertaken by the U.S., will no doubt allow Obama (and other Americans) a sigh of relief.

Still, what has been most confusing has been Obama’s repeated assertions that the military objective in Libya is to guard civilians from attacks by Qaddafi, not kick out the crazed leader from power. If so, what are the alternatives if the Libyan leader refuses to step down as he, too, has repeatedly said was his intention?

A partition of the oil-rich country is certainly out of the question for most of the countries that have endorsed the U.N.-sanctioned war which did not authorize the dispatch of ground forces. Understandably, Obama is similarly not – and neither are his countrymen – eager for another war coming on the heels of U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, an expensive undertaking by any measure. But as long as the popular uprising in Libya remains leaderless, the chances for the U.S. and European powers to pull out of the Libyan upheaval remains far-fetched, if not ill-chosen.

Moreover, little has been revealed about the cost of the war effort, waged by many states including the United Arab Republic and Qatar. The first day of operations for the U.S. has been estimated to cost more than $100 million. Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has reportedly estimated the U.S. costs to “easily pass the $1 billion mark on this operation, regardless of how well things go.”

But the Arab spring, as the popular uprisings in the Arab world are known, has overwhelmed several Arab countries from North Africa to the Arabian Gulf, threatening in the near future such regimes as Yemen, Bahrain and Syria in the hope of planting the seeds of democracy in the region.

Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and considered a leading authority on democracy promotion and democratization worldwide, says that “the dream of Arab democracy appears to resonate with Obama, and numerous U.S. officials and aid practitioners.” All, he continued, “are burning the candle at both ends to find ways to support the emerging democratic transitions.”

But Carothers appears “uncertain ,” writing in Foreign Policy, that ‘a fundamental change in U.S. policy will occur.”  He explains:

“ …Enduring U.S. interests in the region continue to incline important parts of the Washington policy establishment to hope for stability more than democracy. Concerns over oil supplies undergird continuing strong attachment to the (Arab) Gulf monarchies. The need for close cooperation on counter-terrorism with many of the region’s military and intelligence services fuels enduring ties. Washington’s special relations with Israel prompts fears of democratic openings that could result in populist governments that aggressively play the anti-Israel card.”

Much as this may sound positive at first reading, the Obama administration may be missing the point that the Arab spring is at present overcoming decadent Arab regimes and bolstering the Arab street. Take for example the just-concluded Egyptian referendum on the amendments to the country’s constitution considered the first major test of the transition to democracy after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Already complaints have been voiced about the timetable for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for later this year, as being too close to allow the new generation to organize themselves and be able to compete. The timetable would primarily benefit elements of the old regime, thus nullifying the dreams of the young democrats who brought about this cataclysmic change.

George S Hishmeh

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist.

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