Shadow Government

What if Qaddafi wins? Then what?

The calls for President Obama to show more effective leadership and action on Libya are growing louder by the day and coming from ever more surprising corners. Former State Policy Planning Director Anne-Marie Slaughter issued a carefully worded but striking rebuke of Administration policy on the pages of the New York Times. Perhaps that will stir ...

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The calls for President Obama to show more effective leadership and action on Libya are growing louder by the day and coming from ever more surprising corners. Former State Policy Planning Director Anne-Marie Slaughter issued a carefully worded but striking rebuke of Administration policy on the pages of the New York Times. Perhaps that will stir greater Administration activity in pursuit of a no-fly zone — Slaughter’s policy prescription — but I doubt it. And I am beginning to think that it may be too late for an incremental measure like that anyway.

Qaddafi’s forces have the advantage and appear to be pressing that advantage with a determination that stands in sharp contrast to the uncertain equivocation shown by the international community. Perhaps the international community will act at the eleventh hour or perhaps the rebels will recover despite the absence of effective international intervention, but both look increasingly unlikely.

There will be time in coming months to do the comprehensive analysis that determines what were missed opportunities and what were never opportunities in the first place. My guess is that Eliot Cohen’s preliminary assessment will stand up pretty well: we will come to regret the loose talk by Secretary Gates and other critics of the no-fly-zone that undercut international efforts to shape events in Libya, bolstered Qaddafi, and demoralized the rebels all at precisely the most inopportune time. On the other hand, it may be that expressions of public doubt by administration principals were of secondary importance, overshadowed by the unmistakable reluctance of President Obama himself. Or perhaps hindsight will support the notion that the Libyan rebellion was doomed from the start and U.S. inaction of less-than-secondary importance. 

Whatever the ultimate lessons learned, the Obama Team should delay the post-mortem in favor of a much more urgent priority: developing a strategic plan for dealing with post-rebellion Libya led by a weakened, desperate, embittered, but also emboldened Qaddafi regime. The administration is reportedly hard at work on a big speech for the President to give in the coming days or weeks. Before working on that speech, I hope they have first forged a robust strategy.

The best place to start is to reject the wishful thinking of those who would pretend that the U.S. does not have serious national security interests at stake in the outcome in Libya. On the contrary, there is much at stake and the administration needs a strategy to address a range of challenges that will confront the United States and our partners. Here is my laundry list of concerns to start the thinking, but I hope the strategic planners in the Obama administration are developing their own, more comprehensive, list:

The humanitarian disaster of a collapsed Libyan economy (which depended on the hundreds of thousands of expatriates who are now refugees) combined with refugees combined with an attractive refugee magnet to the north (the EU). This would be daunting enough if Qaddafi were gone and there was a semi-permissive environment in which to act. Under the more likely planning scenario of a Qaddafi exploiting the suffering to regain his regional leverage, this has the potential to rival the challenges posed by the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. (For an optimistic discussion of options, see Bob Pape’s analysis here.)

A renewed push for WMD by Qaddafi, who will likely view all previous deals as not only null and void but also blunders. He is likely to ask himself: "Would my situation have reached so dire a point if I had kept my WMD leverage and thus could have blackmailed the international community into abandoning the rebels even faster than they did?" His answer is likely to intensify not only his own pursuit of WMD but perhaps also that of other rogue regimes.

The radicalization of whatever rump rebellion remains. The geographical heart of the rebellion — the eastern region of Libya — was also the source of many of the suicide bombers Al Qaeda in Iraq deployed against the coalition during the height of the Iraq war. It is an unfortunate fact that the rebels most likely to survive Qaddafi’s murderous counterattack are the ones most inimical to our interests. When the dust settles, we will likely confront in Libya two different devils, both of which we know all too well.

The region-wide effects of resurgent authoritarianism on fledgling democratic movements. Ever since the Vietnam War, some have tried to pooh-pooh the domino theory and to pretend that there are no contagion effects in international relations. That myth is harder to cling to now given the dramatic spread of civil-unrest from Tunisia to Oman. And as Jackson Diehl argues, more malign contagion effects are not only possible but likely if Qaddafi succeeds in destroying his domestic opponents. If the international community stands idly by while Qaddafi reasserts control in Libya, it will be that much harder to shore up fledgling democratic movements in the region — but also that much more urgent a priority. 

The internal contradictions among the various policies already enunciated. Up until now, the Obama administration has not really issued a clear policy. Instead, the administration has expressed a vague hope that Qaddafi would step down of his own accord or be forced out without the United States having to do much. In support of this hope, the Obama administration has articulated a number of policies that work at cross purposes. For instance, the threat of war crime charges undercuts the likelihood of Qaddafi stepping down; if he steps down he exposes himself to prosecution whereas he stands a fighting chance of avoiding the war crimes tribunal if he clings to power. The freezing of assets is a plausible way to weaken Qaddafi, but it also makes it less likely he will flee — he would want access to his stash if he took the Idi Amin option of ignominious exile. And so on. Once Qaddafi has re-solidified control, the Obama administration will have to settle on a single coherent policy with a clear strategic objective. Will they pursue regime change? Or will they "reset" relations? If they adopt regime change as the goal, but rule out military means, they will have to change the configuration of non-military tools. If they pursue a reset, they will need far greater strategic clarity on red-lines they are willing to defend.

I hope my assessment here is too pessimistic, but it would be foolish of the administration to base their planning on such a hope. Better to do the hard work now and allow for a pleasant surprise of a better-than-forecasted outcome. We have had enough unpleasant surprises.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola