Symposium: The Mismanaged War Against Libya

A distinguished panel explores one of the most embarrassing international moments in American foreign policy.

In this special edition of Frontpage Symposium, we have gathered a distinguished panel to explore what American -- and Western -- interests are served by the coalition’s war against Libya. Our guests today are:

Michael Ledeen, a noted political analyst and a Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He is the author of The Iranian Time Bomb, Machiavelli on Modern Leadership and Tocqueville on American Character, and he is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal. His latest book is Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West.

Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest official ever to have defected from the former Soviet bloc. His first book, Red Horizons, was republished in 27 languages. In April 2010, Pacepa’s latest book, Programmed to Kill: Lee Harvey Oswald, the Soviet KGB, and the Kennedy Assassination, was prominently displayed at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians held in Washington D.C., as a “superb new paradigmatic work” and a “must read” for “everyone interested in the assassination of President Kennedy.”

Dr. Walid Phares, an expert on the Middle East who teaches Global Strategies in Washington DC. His most recent book is The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.


Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), The Truth About Muhammad, Stealth Jihad and The Complete Infidel's Guide to the Koran.

FP: Walid Phares, Mihai Pacepa, Michael Ledeen and Robert Spencer, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.

Robert Spencer, let us begin with you. What is your position on the coalition campaign, with U.S. involvement, against Gaddafi?

Spencer: As the U.S. fired over one hundred Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya Saturday, the objective seems clear. Barack Obama declared that “we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy.” He explained: “Today we are part of a broad coalition. We are answering the calls of a threatened people. And we are acting in the interests of the United States and the world.” But he didn’t explain how acting forcibly to remove Muammar Gaddafi would indeed be in America’s interests. And that is a case that is not as easily made as it might appear to be.

How could removing Gaddafi not be in America’s interests? It is unlikely that he will be succeeded by Thomas Jefferson. The fact that Gaddafi is a reprehensible human being and no friend of the U.S. does not automatically turn his opponents into Thomas Paine.

Obama has affirmed his support for “the universal rights of the Libyan people,” including “the rights of peaceful assembly, free speech, and the ability of the Libyan people to determine their own destiny,” but he has never specified who in Libya is working to uphold and defend those rights. He has praised “the peaceful transition to democracy” that he says is taking place across the Middle East, and yet the countries where uprisings have taken place have no democratic traditions or significant forces calling for the establishment of a secular, Western-style republics.

Eastern Libya, where the anti-Gaddafi forces are based, is a hotbed of anti-Americanism and jihadist sentiment. A report by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center reveals that over the last few years, more jihadists per capita entered Iraq from Libya than from any other Muslim country – and most of them came from the region that is now spearheading the revolt against Gaddafi.

That may explain why Libyan protesters have defaced Gaddafi’s picture with the Star of David, the hated symbol of the Jews, whom the Koran designates as the “strongest in enmity” toward the Muslims. There has been a notable absence among the protesters of anything equivalent to “Don’t Tread On Me” flags or other signs that what the uprising is really all about is establishing the ballot box and the give-and-take of open-society politics. The Libyan protesters have chanted not “Give me liberty or give me death!,” but “No god but Allah!”

Abu Yahia al-Libi, a Libyan who heads up al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, has warmly praised the uprising in his homeland, calling on Libyans to murder the tyrant and crowing: “Now it is the turn of Gaddafi after he made the people of Libya suffer for more than 40 years.” He said that removing Gaddafi as well as other Middle Eastern autocrats was “a step to reach the goal of every Muslim, which is to make the word of Allah the highest” – that is, to establish a state ruled by Islamic law.

And America’s Tomahawk cruise missiles will have helped bring about such a state in Libya.

Pacepa: I fully agree with Robert Spencer.

There are few people on earth who want to see Gaddafi removed from power more than I do. I could write a book about my reasons, and maybe someday I will. Here I will just say that, after I was granted political asylum by President Carter (1978), Gaddafi set a $2 million bounty on my head because I had revealed his secret efforts to arm international terrorists with bacteriological and other weapons of mass destruction. But my personal animus against Gaddafi is my own policy, and it should not have anything to do with the policy of the U.S. Nor should the personal hatred for Gaddafi on the part of other Americans, such as those whose relatives he killed at the La Belle nightclub in West Berlin (1986), in the Pan Am Flight 103 at Lockerbie (1988) or elsewhere, be raised to the level of U.S. foreign policy.

The U.S., policy toward Libya—and any other country—should defend and promote only the interests of the United States. Unfortunately, the current events taking place in Libya show that our administration does not have any coherent foreign policy toward that country, and that U.S. foreign policy simply blows with the prevailing wind.

The name of the wind propelling the current U.S. policy toward Libya is Sarkozy. The president of France has no real policy toward Libya either, and he is also blowing with the wind—the wind of the 2012 presidential elections, where he is seriously threatened by the socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Rattling sabers has always helped French politicians in the short run--in spite of the fact that France has lost every war it ever started.

Just three years ago, President Sarkozy welcomed Gaddafi and his 400-person entourage on a five-day royal visit to Paris, allowing him to set up his Bedouin tent near the Elysée Palace. "Gaddafi is not perceived as a dictator in the Arab world," Sarkozy explained at the time, adding as further justification: "He is the longest-serving head of state in the region."[i] Now this justification is Sarkozy's reason to go to war against Gaddafi. "France has decided to play its part in history," Sarkozy gravely announced from the steps of the Elysée Palace just before starting the war against Libya. "The Libyan people need our aid and support."[ii] But he, and the rest of the Western World, still do not really know who those people are that he decided to protect.

All we know for certain about the "freedom fighters" opposing Gaddafi is that they fight with Kalashnikov in hand, and that Kalashnikovs have no history of promoting freedom. A recent article published in the prestigious Le Monde goes a step further, revealing that these "brave Libyan freedom fighters" are dominated by jihadists espousing the same complaints of "Westoxification," accompanied by the Jew-hatred and broader infidel-hatred that permeates the Arab world.[iii]

President Obama has also praised Gaddafi in the past. According to press reports, last year, around the time Gaddafi called Obama “our son,” the U.S. president earmarked $400,000 for two of Gaddafi’s charities. The money was divided between the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, run by Gaddafi’s son Saif, and the Wa Attasimou, run by Gaddafi’s daughter Aicha.[iv]

Now President Obama is also facing elections, also in 2012, and he is having at least as much difficulty with the electorate as Sarkozi has. A new war would certainly help. Americans are patriots, and their support for our troops might occasion them to move to the back burner their discontent with Obamacare and with this administration’s disastrous spending habits.

The U.S. has made it abundantly clear to Gaddafi that he had better not try any more dirty tricks against us. He got the message and has so far been quiet toward us. There are plenty of evil dictators in the world who kill their own people, and whom we do not attack. The United States is not the police country of the world.

War is a matter of life and death. It should be never used as a way to win elections.

Ledeen: A week ago I wrote a little blog wondering what Obama might do to prevent everyone from concluding he's a wimp. I confessed that this thought worried me quite a bit, as it had in the 1970s when Carter's name became inseparably tied to "wimp."  Every author falls in love with his own words, but I hope to be forgiven for saying that I was right to worry.

I quite agree with both Robert Spencer and General Pacepa, both of whom remind us of my grandmother's famous bit of folk wisdom, "things are never so bad that they can't get worse."  Indeed, both of them raise the truly paradoxical and terrible possibility that we may "win" in Libya, only to find that we have made things worse: worse for American interests, worse for the Libyan people, worse for the whole region, which hardly needs to get even worse.

But that's not my major concern.  What gets my juices flowing is the ongoing failure to see the Middle Eastern cauldron in full context, and that we are bringing American power to bear on Qadaffi, but not on the tyrants in Tehran.  As almost everyone with a keyboard has said, we don't have a major national interest at stake in Libya, but Iran is our main enemy, and is killing Americans every day.  So if you want to act decisively in the Middle East, you should be working for regime change in Iran; Libya is a sideshow.

So it's the wrong war in the wrong place.

That said, I have a lot of sympathy for the view (often attributed to Samantha Power, Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton) that America should support citizens fighting for freedom against tyrants.  But that does not mean a suspension of strategic judgment, and a failure to recognize which of those fights is most important.

Bits and pieces:  I never liked the no-fly-zone idea, and in fact several weeks ago I said about Libya what I had said years before about Darfur:  bomb the airforce, destroy the planes of the regime.  That takes a few minutes.  Then, if you decide you want to support the rebels, or some of them, go ahead.  At least you've given them a respite from the slaughter.

More:  It's not all bad, you know.  This gives hope to the "rebels" we should be supporting--the ones in Syria and Iran.  Maybe one of the three Administration Valkyries will call for political support for the dissidents in those two unhappy lands.  Obama's video to the Iranians marks a significant change in rhetoric, he's abandoned all that sweet talk about "outstretched hands" and told the young Iranians on the streets that "I'm with you."  I don't quite believe it, but he may now find it much more difficult to appease Tehran.  Time will tell.

As you see, I keep coming back to the big context, because that's the one that really matters.  We're in a big war, the Libya thing is a skirmish.

Phares: We all agree that Colonel Gaddafi is a dictator, that he supported terrorism against the U.S. and France, was responsible for the tragedy of PanAm 103, that he funded, armed and trained radicals in many African countries such as in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Haute Volta, and in a few Middle Eastern countries, including Lebanon. We all are aware that his regime oppressed his people and tortured and jailed his opponents for four decades. I observed Gaddafi ruling Libya unchecked during and after the Cold War before and after 9/11 and he was received by liberal democracies as a respectable leader.

My first question is: Why has the West been silent so long and why is it so late in taking action against this dictator? Of course it had to do with oil. Western elites were morally and politically encouraging him by buying his oil and empowering him with endless cash as Libyan dissidents were dying in jails.

Now, as missiles are crushing Gaddafi’s air defense systems and tanks, Western governments should be invited for serious self-criticism for having enabled this regime to last that long. Squeezing or even defeating Gaddafi should prompt a comprehensive review of past decades of Western policies towards this regime and its abuses of human rights. The military operation should not end with the departure of Gaddafi from power. It must open the door for an examination of US and European policies that have aligned themselves with Petrodollars interests for over half a century. Such self-criticism was supposed to start with the removal of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but unfortunately, it hasn't taken place yet, precisely because of the mega-influence inside the West and the United States by powerful lobbies representing the interests of OPEC, the Arab League and the OIC.

Besides, questions should be raised about the Arab League and OIC endorsement of an action against Gaddafi's regime. Where were they for decades, when the Libyan dictator used to seize the microphone on their platforms and blast the very democracies they implored to act against him? These organizations catered to the interest of regimes they now are calling for sanctions against. Mr. Amr Moussa, the current secretary general of the Arab League, rises against Gaddafi after having supported him for years, while the latter was oppressing his own people.

In my book, The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East, I call all these regimes and organizations a "brotherhood against democracy." They have supported each other against democratic movements and minorities everywhere in the region. From Sudan to Lebanon, from Iraq to Libya, the regional organizations were at the service of these regimes, not of the people. As these revolts are ongoing, these inter-regimes’ organizations must be criticized and eventually reformed. Last year, the Arab League and OIC were endorsing Libya's role in the UN Council on Human Rights. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya's representatives at the Geneva UN body were shutting up the voices of Libyan dissidents just a few months ago. Now that the uprisings have crumbled the regimes in Cairo and Tunisia, and Tripoli's ruler is cornered, the negative impact these inter-regime organizations have on dissidents and human rights on international levels must be exposed and their future representation comprehensively reformed.

I do agree with Mr. Spencer that many jihadists have been recruited from Libya, and particularly from its eastern provinces. I also agree with General Pacepa that Western policies towards Gaddafi's regime were incoherent. And I certainly agree with Dr. Ledeen that US policy should support true democratic forces and uprisings in the region from Iran to the Arab world.

In short I would have advised for a different set of US global strategies in the Middle East. We should have backed the Iranian Green Revolution in 2009, the Cedars Revolution as it struggles against Hezbollah, and Darfur in its liberation drive against the Jihadist regime in Khartoum. In Egypt, we should have clearly sided with the secular youth and Copts, as they asked for a new constitution. In Iraq, we should have been clear in supporting reformist and secular forces.

As far as Libya is concerned, removing Gaddafi is not the question. That should have been done years ago on the grounds of abuse of human rights. The question is who will come next? Clearly, the agenda of the Benghazi leadership is not clear. We know there is a layer of former bureaucrats, diplomats, intellectuals and military dissidents with whom partnership is possible and should be encouraged. But there is another layer below the surface which is made of Islamists, Salafists and in some cases Jihadists.

From a simple observation of the latter's narrative on al Jazeera, one major component of the opposition is an Islamist force aiming at taking over in Tripoli. Hence, Washington must partner with the secular-democrats and warn that it won't endorse replacing Gaddafi's Jamahiriyya with a Jihadi emirate. Why aren't the most liberal Libyan dissidents received in Washington and made visible? As Mr. Spencer said, the US and NATO military has been tasked to open the highways to Tripoli for the opposition, but we need to insure that on that highway we won't see the democracy groups eliminated by the next authoritarians.

FP: Walid Phares, Mihai Pacepa, Michael Ledeen and Robert Spencer, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.


[i] Joseph A. Harris, "Sarko's War," The American Spectator, March 21, 2011.

[ii] Idem.

[iii] Andrew G. Bostom, "Let Muslim Anti-Terrosit States Police Libya," Human Events, March 21, 2011.

[iv] “Obama Gave $400,000 To Libyan Charities Run By Gaddafi’s Children,”, February 24, 2011.