In our initial message of 2011 we reported on the peaceful “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia which resulted in the overthrow of President Zine Bin Ali on January 15th and triggered the revolution in Egypt which removed President Hosni Mubarak. We concluded that these events will come to be regarded as the tsunami wave of freedom which will eventually sweep over the entire Middle East.
It was not long before the predicted wave began. The oppressed people of Libya observed the successful revolutions which were carried out by the two neighboring countries, and by February 20th a full scale revolt was underway. On February 21, 2011, Saif al-Islam Muammar Al-Gaddafi, oldest son of Muammar Gaddafi, spoke on Libyan television of his fears that the country would fragment and be replaced by “15 Islamic fundamentalist emirates. Shortly after this speech, the Libyan Ambassador to India announced that he had resigned in protest at the “massacre” of protesters. In short, Col. Qadhafi would not go without a bloodbath.
Two days later President Barrack Obama said “The United States…strongly supports the universal rights of the Libyan people. That includes the rights of peaceful assembly, free speech, and the ability of the Libyan people to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. They are not negotiable…And they cannot be denied through violence or suppression.”
After hearing these fine words, and the belated cheering for the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt by the US and many other countries, the anti-government people in Libya could logically conclude that the U.S. and its allies would welcome the removal of the mad Muammar and his extravagant sons and lend material support to their revolution. Such support could be compared with the critical role the French Navy played at Yorktown, Virginia in another revolution some 235 years ago. So far, meaningful support from the US has not been forthcoming.
It is helpful to review some significant events that have transpired since the Libyan revolution began.
March 8th. In an op/ed piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, March 8th entitled “The US Should Keep Out of Libya” Foreign Affairs Council President Richard Haass, arguing against the imposition of a no-fly zone stated that the Qadhafi “regime could defeat the opposition without resorting to attack plane and helicopter gunships simply by exploiting its advantages in terms of foot soldiers and light arms.” Mr. Haass goes on to say that “intervening militarily in Libya would be a potentially costly distraction for the U.S. military.”
. March 10th. The French government recognized the Libyan National Transitional Council as the sole representative of the Libyan people. (See their web site, http/ntclibya).
. Friday, March 11th the European Union and the U.S. both increased the sanctions imposed on Libya. Such actions merely constitute a mild reprimand, and are largely meaningless in the short term to a regime that has billions of dollars stashed away.
. Saturday, March 12th. The Arab League, consisting of 22 Arab countries, asked the Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. As vividly shown in the Iraq war, any unopposed air power is deadly over desert terrain.
. Saturday/Sunday March 12-13. In a scathing editorial the Wall Street Journal summarized, “the damage from a Qadhafi victory would not merely be humanitarian, though that would be awful enough, The only way Gadhafi can subdue Benghazi and the east is with a door-to-door purge and systematic murder.
. Sunday, March 13th. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, after a firestorm of criticism of his earlier remarks, recanted and said “If we are directed to impose a no-fly zone, we have the resources to do it”. On the same day, in another op/ed piece in the WSJ, Eliot Cohen asked, “Why are top defense and intelligence officials (i.e. Bob Gates and Leon Panetta) disparaging military action and publicly predicting Gadhafi’s survival?” Note: The implied answer, of course, is that this is the outcome that the administration wants.
These criticisms of military action come from patriotic Americans. Why would they do this? One plausible reason is that by allowing a despised dictator to overwhelm a legitimate popular rebellion sends a message to the other authoritarian regimes who are our allies, notably Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait, that it is OK to use force against rebels to stay in power. The Ayatollahs in Iran must be dancing with joy (if they know how to do that).
My military contacts assure me that one carrier air group could probably destroy the 113 Soviet-era Libyan Air Force in one day (The knowledge that a carrier group lurks offshore might well inspire more pilots to defect). The three airfields surrounding Tripoli could be rendered useless by cruise missiles fired from Aegis cruisers or submarines aimed at the runways. With no air force there is no need to establish a no-fly zone. Arming the new Council forces with shoulder-fired Stinger missiles would render any use of helicopters by Qadhafi’s militias very expensive indeed. Communications equipment and other vital military gear can be delivered through the Port of Benghazi.
What Has Been Done
In his press conference on Friday, March 12th, President Obama listed the actions that the U.S. has taken in response to the Libyan situation. These included:
Evacuating American citizens and embassy personnel out of Libya.
Seized financial assets of Qadhafi and his family;
Mobilized the international community through the United Nations;
Seek additional sanctions from the United Nations and NATO partners.
These are all passive actions which put no immediate pressure on Qadhafi. However, if he ultimately prevails, he will certainly take actions he can to remove these sanctions, and that would not be pretty.
In this conference President Obama further stated: “… that I have not taken any options off the table at this point. I am absolutely clear that it is in the interest of the United States, and more importantly, in the interest of the Libyan people for Mr. Qaddafi to leave. And I have not foreclosed these options.”
“Now, I do take very seriously making sure that any decisions I make that involve U.S. military power are well thought through and are done in close consultation with Secretary Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen, and all relevant personnel. Any time I send the United States forces into a potentially hostile situation, there are risks involved and there are consequences. And it is my job as President to make sure that we have considered all those risks.” (But how long will he consider them?)
President Obama’s statement the he has “not taken any options off the table” is a specious remark. During his drawn out deliberation process, many of these options are disappearing, and if Qadhafi retains power, which becomes more likely every day that Obama fails to act decisively to support the Libyan Revolution, most of these “options” will have left the table by themselves. But perhaps this is his real objective.
When President Obama stated that he is carefully considering what actions to take, it became in essence a green light for Col. Qadhafi to “make facts on the ground”. While the US is dithering, Qadafi’s military is on the verge of destroying the revolution. These forces are now advancing towards Benghazi murdering his opposition along the way.
What Still Can Be Done
On Sunday, March 13th, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in Paris with representatives from the Libyan National Transitional Council presumably to ask what can be done. We would have expected that President Obama would have at least shared with her his famous list of “option on the table”. From our vantage point; this list would include the following actions:
. Immediately recognize the new Republic of Libya, and urge our European allies to do the same. They would do so immediately. Once this is done, the U.S. can legally respond to requests from the new Republic of Libya to provide assistance in specific areas, e.g. air strikes.
. Deploy a U.S. carrier to the Mediterranean. On March 1st the USS Enterprise (CV-67) is no in the Red Sea and could reach the Med in a matter of days. Some of its air group presumably could be deployed to bases in Egypt earlier.
. Impose a no-fly zone. George Friedman, Chairman of STRATFOR, wrote a long paper entitled “How a Libyan No-Fly Zone Could Backfire”, and perhaps this thinking has reached the President. If so, don’t bother with a no-fly zone; simply authorize our military to take out the Libyan Air Force as discussed above.
. Lift the Arms Embargo. It only hurt those without arms (the rebels).
. Immediately supply anti-tank weapons and other military gear needed.
. Urge Egypt to deploy troops and armor on the Egyptian/Libyan border to be ready to assist the Republic of Libya. Although they have stated they want no foreign troops in Libya, that might change.
The most common criticism of any of these alternatives is that they would inevitably lead to further involvement, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. If such involvement was indeed inevitable, we would wholeheartedly concur. Our last blog (February 11th) we discussed the dictum set forth by both President Eisenhower and General Macarthur, and quoted by Secretary Gates, “Never become involved in a ground war in Asia or the Middle East. Accordingly, we proposed that the new Republic of Libya government invite the Egyptian army to assist them to resist the Qadhafi’s militias and mercenaries. Or perhaps hire mercenaries of their own, with the promise to pay from future oil revenues. The role of the Western countries would be solely an air campaign to destroy Qadhafi’s air force and armor. This can be done without setting a foot on Libyan soil.
American involvement in any new overseas action that involves our military and has shown to lead to hugely expensive operations with questionable outcomes such as Iraq and Afghanistan is certainly to be avoided in the future. However, that should not preclude all situations, and especially if the circumstances can be changed to avoid that outcome. I believe that this is the situation in Libya.
Such calculations should indeed be based on what is in our national interest. In the case of Libya, many critics say that the country is a minor player with a small population of about 8 million, and relatively small hydrocarbon reserves as compared with the Arabian Gulf countries. This is true, and certainly our immediate regional interest is in deflecting the ambitions of Iran. This implies maintaining our long and strong relationships with the major oil producing countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and now Iraq. Our active support in the overthrow of autocratic regimes in the region does not give these rulers much comfort. However, the U.S. remains the major detriment to the expansion of Iran, and has provided military assistance when needed (e.g. protecting Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein).
We cannot cynically ignore the aspirations of the people of these countries as they seek our freedoms and better lives. The inherent strength of the United States lies in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and if we want to maintain the respect of the world, we should certainly help those who aspire to these freedoms. While the Obama administration may not think it is expedient, but having strongly endorsed the Libyan rebels in their actions to overthrow Qadhafi, it is the right thing to do.
As President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more.”
This also is essentially the mission of the Foundation of International Freedom.
Byron K. Varme
Byron K. Varme
Transcript of President Obama’s Remarks on Libya
The following is a transcript of the remarks of President Barrack Obama made concerning Libya in a press conference held on Friday, March 13, 2011:
So, with that, let me take a few questions. And I’m going to start with Mr. Todd.
Q. Thank you, Mr. President. I want to go to — start with Libya. You had said that you want to see Qaddafi leave power, leave office. Are you prepared to use any means necessary in the United States government to make that happen? And if not, why not? I know in the cases of some of these other uprisings there’s been a careful consideration not to take sides, let the Libyan — let the people in those countries make this decision. But in this case, it does seem we have taken sides. So what — what’s the red line here?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, let’s take a look at what we’ve already done. My first priority obviously was getting out American citizens and embassy personnel out of Libya, and we got that done. The very next day we had already instituted the largest financial seizure of assets in our history. And the day after that we’d imposed sanctions and we had mobilized the international community through the United Nations, so that across the board we are slowly tightening the noose on Qaddafi. He is more and more isolated internationally, both through sanctions as well as an arms embargo.
In addition to that, we’ve provided a host of humanitarian aid measures to make sure that people are not adversely affected as they cross the borders into Tunisia or Egypt. And we will continue to do that.
And what we’ve done is we’ve organized in NATO a series of conversations about a wide range of options that we can take — everything from 24-hour surveillance so that we can monitor the situation on the ground and react rapidly if conditions deteriorated, to further efforts with respect to an arms embargo, additional efforts on humanitarian aid, but also potential military options including a no-fly zone.
NATO will be meeting on Tuesday to consider a no-fly zone, and we’ve been in discussion with both Arab countries as well as African countries to gauge their support for such an action.
In addition, Secretary Hillary Clinton will be meeting with the opposition in the next several days, and we have determined that it’s appropriate for us to assign a representative whose specific job is to interact with the opposition and determine ways that we can further help them. And so we’re going to be in close consultation with them.
So the bottom line is, is that I have not taken any options off the table at this point. I think it is important to understand that we have moved about as swiftly as an international coalition has ever moved to impose sanctions on Qaddafi. I am absolutely clear that it is in the interest of the United States, and more importantly, in the interest of the Libyan people for Mr. Qaddafi to leave. And I have not foreclosed these options.
Now, I do take very seriously making sure that any decisions I make that involve U.S. military power are well thought through and are done in close consultation with Secretary Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen, and all relevant personnel. Any time I send the United States forces into a potentially hostile situation, there are risks involved and there are consequences. And it is my job as President to make sure that we have considered all those risks.
It’s also important, from a political perspective, to, as much as possible, maintain the strong international coalition that we have right now.
Q Are you concerned that because you’ve called for his removal, you’ve imposed all these sanctions, that Qaddafi feels cornered, has no other option in his mind but to just keep fighting, keep fighting? And, in the words of your Director of National Intelligence, he may have the firepower to potentially win this standoff with the rebels.
THE PRESIDENT: I am concerned, absolutely. And I think that’s why it’s so important for us not to stop where we are, but to continue to find options that will add additional pressure, including sending a clear message to those around Qaddafi that the world is watching and we’re paying attention, and that there have been referrals to the International Criminal Court.
Part of what we’re going to be wanting to do is to change the balance not just militarily inside of Libya, but also to change the balance in terms of those who are around Qaddafi and are thinking about what their future prospects are if they continue down the course that they’re on.
But, Chuck, there’s no doubt that I am concerned about it. Qaddafi has a stash of weapons. He not only has some troops that remain loyal to him, but there have been reports that he’s also been hiring mercenaries. Even with the financial freeze that we’ve imposed, he still has some assets. The rebel groups are just now getting organized. And so we’re going to have to continue to apply pressure, and that’s why I say we have not taken any options off the table at this point.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Just to follow up on Libya, and I also have a budget question. You say you’re concerned, but is Qaddafi staying, is that an acceptable option for you ever?
And my question on the budget is — there’s been some criticism from members of your own party about your leadership on negotiations on spending. And I’m wondering, given that, if you can talk about where you stand on a three-week CR, on longer-term priorities, and what you would and would not accept on cuts.
THE PRESIDENT: Sure.
Q Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Going back to the Qaddafi question, as I said before, it is in the United States’ interest and the interest of the people of Libya that Qaddafi leave. And we are going to do a — we’re going to take a wide range of actions to try to bring about that outcome. When you say is it ever acceptable, I think what you’re asking is are we going to do — engage in any potential military action to make that happen. And as I’ve said before, when it comes to U.S. military actions, whether it’s a no-fly zone or other options, you’ve got to balance costs versus benefits. And I don’t take those decisions lightly.
But let me be as clear as I can about the desired outcome from our perspective, and that is that Qaddafi step down. And we are going to continue to work with the international community to try to achieve that, and we are going to be in close consultation with these opposition groups as they get organized to see how we can bring about that outcome.