Op-Ed

Libya Action in U.S. National Interest

Shibley Telhami

U.S. foreign military intervention shouldn’t be taken lightly, and the current one in Libya deserves a full debate. But Libya’s case is exceptional — in more ways than one.

Both U.S. national interests and its values come together here, and Arab support is unprecedented. In addition, the interests at stake extend far beyond Libya’s borders.

That the intervention is moral is not a hard case to make. Libya is an exceptional case. Qaddafi’s brutality was matched by his chilling threat to “purify” Libya “house to house,” using his military and foreign mercenaries.

Had Qaddafi been allowed to overtake Benghazi, with possible massacres, no one could have pretended surprise. The pressure to act would have only increased when it would have been too late and too costly.

Libya is exceptional in another way: Never in modern history has an Arab ruler been almost universally reviled by both Arab governments and the Arab public. Even among those who oppose the West, such as Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, hatred of Qaddafi trumps anger with the West.

Support for intervention has come from an unlikely source: the influential Sunni cleric, Yousef al-Qaradawi, a strong critic of U.S. policy. Popular blogs and commentaries reveal that, despite ambivalence, Arabs who oppose the intervention remain a minority.

Qaddafi represents the ultimate case of the ruler whom Arab revolutionaries want to depose. In their pursuit of dignity, most are embarrassed by the man, his titles, his behavior, his words.

For those who ask what the U.S. national interest in Libya is, the correct question is about broad U.S. regional interests. Had the Libyan crisis emerged before the Arab uprisings, intervention would still have been the moral course — though it would have been harder to make the case about U.S. interests. But there is a link among the revolutions sweeping the Arab world that cannot be denied.

First, the uprisings have been, stunningly, peaceful. Even in Yemen — where weapons are everywhere, hundreds of thousands have remained adamant in facing the bullets of security forces by repeating Cairo’s Tahrir Square chant, “Silmiyyah, Silmiyyah” (peaceful, peaceful). For thousands, a whiff of dignity and freedom has overcome the fear of death.

Their success will be the antidote to militant extremists — and thus in the U.S. interest — and their failure would surely turn their energies toward militancy. To be sure, as the Middle East goes through unstable times, al Qaeda will find new opportunities and Washington must remain vigilant. But al Qaeda’s ultimate undoing will be when the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims see it as the primary threat to their aspirations.

Second, the information revolution has enabled Arab public empowerment. One aspect is the knowledge that the world is watching and that rulers are being restrained by international reaction. They may be able to get away with some actions — as in Bahrain — but there is a new ceiling for governmental ruthlessness. The Qaddafi case has established this.

Could the United States have acted earlier? Not if Security Council backing was necessary: A UN resolution was unlikely without Arab League support. But once the Arab League agreed, the UN Security Council moved rapidly.

Could Washington have acted earlier without UN support? Only at a high cost, both internationally and in Arab public opinion.

The Obama administration has rightly been careful to balance the region’s suspicion of the West with the need to intervene. While this does not satisfy everyone, the receptivity in the region to the international intervention — and Qaddafi’s inability to sell it as “a colonial Crusader” war — is itself extraordinary, given historic opposition to Western intervention.

We should not expect a sudden Arab embrace of the United States, because perceptions are based on a long history and on multiple issues, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the Great Arab Awakening is creating new prisms through which Arabs view the world, and it is important that the new prisms improve their view of U.S. policy.

President Barack Obama needs to square the current U.N. mandate to impose a no-fly zone and protect civilians in Libya with the broader policy aim that Qaddafi must go. He needs to specify the limits of the U.S. role, especially should civil war in Libya take hold.

But one test of the intervention is what would have happened without it. Aside from the moral issue, the empowered millions of Libyans would have had to turn to militant means — leading to prolonged civil war and opportunities for al Qaeda. International public opinion would have dictated isolating Qaddafi, leading him to become an international menace. And his will to meddle in the transitions of Tunisia and Egypt would have increased.

Even if Qaddafi is not soon removed by the intervention, it is hard to argue that he won’t be weakened. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Arab world, the peaceful masses continue to brave bullets knowing that the rest of the world is watching.

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