Anyone who believes that NATO’s overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi is a “success” for President Obama’s foreign policy should listen to the speech of Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council, at the “liberation day” celebrations in Benghazi: “We are an Islamic country,” the de facto president of Libya proclaimed to the crowds shouting “Allahu Akbar.” “We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.”
Despite these troubling portents for Libya’s future, the brutal end of Muammar Gaddafi is being spun as a “vindication” of President Obama’s foreign policy philosophy, as The New York Times has it. In an obvious swipe at the trigger-happy, unilateralist “cowboy” George Bush, the Times praises Obama’s “carefully calibrated response” that “relies on collective, rather than unilateral action” and “on surgical strikes rather than massive troop deployments.” The president himself crowed, “We’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.”
Such a reading of the Libyan adventure must rely on ignoring numerous unpleasant facts. Despite the implication that Obama assembled this coalition and thus deserves credit for it, in fact he was dragged into Libya by France and England. The last thing Obama wanted, having demonized the war in Iraq as a “quagmire” leading to “reckless escalation,” was to get Americans involved in yet another conflict involving Middle East Muslims. But the intervention was attractive to the Europeans as a way of gaining some geo-political clout to go along with their pretensions that they are one of the essential “poles” in a “multipolar” world, as French president Jacques Chirac once claimed. And don’t forget that before the conflict, E.U. countries got 10% of their imported oil from Libya. The conflict in nearby Libya, with its population of six million, long Mediterranean coastline, and mostly flat terrain perfect for establishing dominance over airspace, was tailor-made for such prestige-building on the cheap. Gaddafi’s bluster about exterminating the “rats” in rebel-held Benghazi merely provided the moral camouflage for the Europeans.
Moreover, an American president devoted to “multilateralism” and eager to “lead from behind” was amenable to facilitating the charade that this was a NATO operation, even though given European military weakness, America had to provide the intelligence-gathering aircraft, Predator drones, aerial refueling tankers, and precision-guided bombs that were necessary for destroying Gaddafi’s anti-aircraft batteries so that the Europeans could bomb with impunity. Even still, it took eight months and 20,000 sorties for NATO forces enjoying air superiority and high-tech weaponry to defeat a tin-pot dictator and his hired army. As for the vaunted Security Council resolution, which was passed ostensibly to prevent a “genocidal” slaughter, it was quickly revealed to be a sham when it became obvious that NATO was attempting to kill Gaddafi and bring about regime-change. So much for the moral purity of “collective action” sporting the Security Council seal of approval.
More importantly, what American interests was Obama serving by getting involved in Europe’s exercise in geopolitical public relations? Gaddafi was a vicious, blood-stained dictator, and there’s no doubt the world’s a better place without him. But since he had abandoned his WMD programs in 2003, he had behaved himself as far as our interests were concerned. We have the photos of Gaddafi smiling with Condoleezza Rice and President Obama himself to prove it. The talk about punishing the architect of the Lockerbie bombing that killed 189 Americans was a specious pretext, since we’d known for years Gaddafi was responsible. Indeed, Libya had admitted as much and paid $2.16 billion to the families of the American victims of the bombing. In 2008 another $1.5 billion was put into a fund to compensate victims of other Libyan terrorist attacks. These payments were the price for the removal of Libya from the list of states supporting terrorism, the lifting of trade sanctions, and the restoration of diplomatic relations with the U.S. Given that diplomatic rapprochement, it’s hard to see what had changed so drastically in Gaddafi’s behavior that justified American involvement in getting rid of someone we had previously admitted back into our good graces. After all, there are numerous oppressive dictators––Bashar al-Assad in nearby Syria comes to mind, not to mention the thuggish mullahs in Iran––that this administration has resigned itself to coexisting with. And unlike the defanged Gaddafi, they’re patently hostile to us and actively working against our interests.
Our precipitate abandonment of Gaddafi has already put at risk our national security. The collapse of Gaddafi’s regime engineered by NATO has set loose thousands of weapons, some of which are very likely headed to the black markets supplying terrorists. In February, rebels were documented plundering assault rifles, machine guns, mines, grenades, antitank missiles, and rocket-propelled grenades from arms depots. According to government officials in Chad and Algeria, some of these weapons have already reached the North African al Qaeda affiliate Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Particularly worrisome are the SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 of which were stockpiled by the Gaddafi regime. These weapons have in the past brought down commercial airliners, including an Air Rhodesia plane, an Angolan Airways 737, a Sudan Airways plane, and the plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda, which led to the Rwandan genocide. And don’t forget the remnants of Libya’s WMD program, including 10 tons of mustard gas and dumps of raw nuclear fuel, that we are depending on the NTC to secure, on the assumption that it will in fact be able to restore order over the numerous heavily armed tribal factions, and account for the missing weapons and secure the remainder before they end up in the hands of terrorists.
Most important, there is the issue of who exactly is going to take Gaddafi’s place as the rulers of Libya. The heartland of the rebellion, eastern Libya and the towns of Benghazi and Darnah, is the home of the al Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Jihadist personnel files captured in Iraq revealed that on a per capita basis, Libyans comprised the largest percentage of foreign insurgents, 85% of whom were suicide bombers. The veterans of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan no doubt have learned there techniques for fashioning IEDs. With the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime, these fighters have now gained access to weapons looted from arms depots, and can use the plundered mortars and artillery shells to make roadside bombs. Moreover, the LGIF played a major role in the take-over of Tripoli and the capture of Gaddafi’s compound. Their commander, Abd Al-Hakim Belhadj, is now a major force in the NTC and the commander of the Tripoli garrison. He is also an al Qaeda veteran from Afghanistan who has gone on record rejecting any coexistence with “Crusaders” except in the form of jihad. His fighters will undoubtedly be an important factor in the maelstrom of ethnic, sectarian, and tribal conflicts that will follow Gaddafi’s death, and that now will soon be financed by the 1.6 million barrels of oil Libya can produce a day.
Given these realities, it is fanciful to think a stable liberal democracy favorable to Western interests is going to replace the Gaddafi regime. As Abdul-Jalil’s celebratory speech reveals, it is very likely that the better-organized Islamist elements will come to the fore, as they have in next-door Egypt. Why else would other jihadist organizations have supported the rebels? Nor should these Islamist portents surprise us, given what we were told months ago by the NTC’s draft constitutional charter, which says, “Islam is the religion of the state, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Shari’a).” This statement, confirmed by Jalil’s remarks, should make us worry about what sort of regime, if any, will emerge from the coming violent clashes among the various heavily armed factions now roaming Libya. After all, Islam is the only unifying force in a country torn by tribal loyalties and geographical divisions. Thus even if the new government institutionalizes “human rights” and “freedom,” it will likely be the “freedom” to live like a good Muslim according to “human rights” as defined by Shari’a law, including polygamy, which Jalil has already legalized by decree. At that point, we will have colluded in the removal of a creepy dictator who nonetheless represented no threat to our national interests, and replaced him with an Islamist regime sympathetic to the jihadist outfits we are battling across the globe.
Rather than a foreign policy “success” or proof of the superiority of “collective action,” Obama’s Libyan adventure is one more geopolitical disaster to go along with his failure to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the increasingly active hostility of Pakistan, the compromising of Israel’s security with demands for concessions, and the plans to make a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq by year’s end. Just as in Egypt, we have helped bring down a regime that represented no direct national security threat and served our interests, without any clear knowledge of who will replace them. We have colluded in a transparent fraud, claiming that we were intervening in Libya to stop a massacre, when in fact our obvious aim was the removal of Gaddafi. Worse yet, we have indulged, for the whole world to see, the hypocrisy of plucking the low-hanging fruit like Gaddafi on humanitarian pretexts, all the while we do nothing about the on-going massacres perpetrated by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. And we have cleared the space for the emergence of another Islamist regime in the Middle East. The only lesson we have taught the world is that being America’s enemy is better for a dictator’s long-term survival than being our friend.
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