Shadow Government

How to get rid of Qaddafi

The race is on to see which American politicians can argue most forcefully for the use of our military power to assist rebels fighting deranged Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Conservatives were early to the argument, eager to help people brave enough to fight for their freedom and understandably frustrated by President Obama’s broad encomia lacking ...

Getty Images
Getty Images

The race is on to see which American politicians can argue most forcefully for the use of our military power to assist rebels fighting deranged Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Conservatives were early to the argument, eager to help people brave enough to fight for their freedom and understandably frustrated by President Obama’s broad encomia lacking any practical assistance to emergent democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt. Senator John Kerry joined the fray over the weekend, showing the liberals’ colors and trying to look worthy of being Secretary of Defense.

The Obama administration conveys its usual contradictory messages, most discouragingly explaining that the threat of force should deter Qaddafi as they backpedal from suggesting any actual use of that force. It is a mystery why the administration would believe an experienced manipulator like Qaddafi wouldn’t make us prove it.

The administration compounded their errors by publicly tying any U.S. action to multilateral support they cannot realistically attain, and showing we could be blackmailed into inaction if U.S. diplomats were in country.

But I share Secretary Gates’s hesitance to use military means to affect the battles in Libya, principally because I see no sign the president has anywhere near the commitment to solve this problem that would merit getting Libyan hopes up or putting American service members at risk.

As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell judiciously pointed out, we know little about the anti-Qaddafi rebels. We’re still combating weapons we gave the mujaheddin to fight Soviets in Afghanistan, and dealing with the radicalization of that society from civil war. Libyan rebels do not appear lacking in weaponry, as military units have defected bringing their equipment, and Libyans are creatively using the means available to them (like bulldozers). Libyan military forces remaining in the Qaddafi camp don’t look particularly proficient, missing munitions dumps and being fought to a standstill by untrained irregulars. And Qaddafi has not yet crossed the threshold of using to maximum effect the destructive means in his control.

This suggests Qaddafi’s abdication is a problem better managed by soft power than the use of military force. Our goal should be to get Qaddafi to leave and persuade the people keeping him in power not to do so. The administration seems stuck in a punitive mindset, freezing assets and condemning, but has done little that would convince Qaddafi there is a way other than fighting to the finish. Where is the "smart power" this administration argued would put the State Department back in the lead of American national security policy? Former National Security Advisor Steve Hadley (full disclosure: my former boss) suggested offering the $30 billion in frozen Libyan assets as a rebuilding fund, releasable to Libyans who oppose Qaddafi; the administration has proposed nothing so creative or likely to induce the ebbing of support from Qaddafi’s ranks.

Perhaps behind the scenes, our diplomats are negotiating with Qaddafi to flee the country, paralleling the good that President Reagan did in convincing President Ferdinand Marcos to accept asylum and leave the Philippines to a hopeful democratic future. That would involve morally unsatisfying compromises, but it would be good for the people of Libya. It would also be less costly and less destructive to relationships, especially in the Middle East, that the United States needs to manage other problems, like combating terrorism.

The Obama administration is going to miss the tide yet again unless it begins floating more creative ideas than just economic sanctions and international investigation. They ought to be focusing effort on peeling supporters away from Qaddafi and helping him develop an exit strategy.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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