United States Must Take Lead on Libya

Facing a crisis like the one in Libya today, one always has to weigh the costs of action against the costs of inaction.

Related to this is the balance between action that is more multilateral, with broad support and greater international approval; and action with a small number of partners, which can have the advantage of speed and boldness.

The two of us have different views of the Obama administration’s actions to date — and different views of the emphasis placed on multilateral action. But we agree that the U.S. needs to act more urgently and decisively. Particularly now that most Americans have been evacuated from Libya, and the Qadhafi regime is escalating its brutal response to the protests.

We recognize the importance that the administration attaches to acting multilaterally. Indeed, for that reason, it should have begun leading more decisively sooner — because multilateral action takes more time to organize.

One urgent action where the U.S. could take the lead – and for which there is no time for delay – is to organize humanitarian relief for people in the liberated cities of Libya.

There is already an urgent demand for medical supplies. If the crisis continues, food and other basic requirements will likely need to be sent as well. This effort could be organized by private groups, like the Red Cross (with the support of governments), or directly by governments. Egypt and Tunisia would be crucial partners in such an effort. It is hard to imagine that they would not be cooperative. In addition, supplies could be delivered by ship to most of the coastal cities.

If nothing else, such action would demonstrate genuine concern for the Libyan people; and would be well received throughout the Arab world.

In everything the U.S. does, the most important partner should be the people of Libya themselves. As a starting point, we should consider seriously any request they make for help, and should not do anything that they don’t want.

This raises the question of who represents the Libyan people? Certainly not Muammar Qadhafi and his regime— though the U.S. still formally recognizes it as the government. To organize bolder actions, Washington needs to make it absolutely clear, as France and others have done already, that it no longer – and will never – recognize the Qaddafi regime as the government of Libya.

The U.S. should suspend diplomatic relations with Libya — as Peru has done. And we must encourage others to do the same.

More important, however, is establishing a dialogue with local authorities in Libya’s liberated cities, particularly Benghazi, where the anti-Qadhafi forces have organized a local council. In addition to helping identify humanitarian needs, this dialogue could address two particularly important issues:

First, what supplies or other assistance do these cities need to defend themselves from counter-attacks by Qadhafi’s forces and mercenaries?

Second, what conditions would these anti-Qadhafi forces need to meet to be recognized by the international community – or at least the U.S. and Europe – as the Transitional Authority in Libya. One condition would clearly need to be a commitment to a unified Libya. But it should not be difficult to reach agreement on that point — with protestors holding so many signs that say, “No to Tribalism” and “Libya is One Clan, Tripoli is Our Capital.”

Washington must begin multilateral contingency planning on several fronts now. We may soon need to turn to the U.N. Security Council, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Arab League or the Organization of the Islamic Conference to gain support for more muscular operations that may become necessary in the coming days. That would include consideration of a no fly zone.

However, while a no fly zone should certainly be considered if requested, it may not have a decisive effect on the ground — where Qadhafi’s mercenaries have launched a reign of terror.

Finally, the U.S. should also lead an effort to persuade Libya’s neighbors in Africa to halt all support for the Qadhafi regime and to do whatever possible to halt the flow of mercenaries into Libya.

The current U.S. strategy seems to be to combine multilateral sanctions with the prospect of an International Criminal Court indictment for Qadhafi and some of his deputies — to encourage his subordinates to defect, as many ambassadors and other officials have already.

However, there is a hard-core group around Qadhafi, who are fighting for their lives and likely to be unaffected by such threats. The danger of a protracted stalemate exists — not unlike that in Ivory Coast, with continuing warfare and no end in sight.

That outcome would be terrible for the Libyan people and for the Middle East generally. It would clearly provide opportunities for more extreme elements to increase their influence.

Just how to navigate the coming days of crisis is hard to foresee. The administration will need to be flexible and pragmatic.

But four major course corrections are needed right away

1) Immediate organization of humanitarian relief efforts;

2) An explicit decision that Qadhafi must go as a matter of U.S. policy — which, it appears, has just been announced;

3) Establishment of a dialogue with anti-Qadhafi forces in the liberated cities;

4) Immediate diplomatic action to pave the way for international action of a more forceful sort should the situation take further turns for the worse in Libya.

Too often in the past the U.S. has failed to assist people who needed help. Let’s not do it again.