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Air Strikes, and Questions, Mount over Libya

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
March 23, 2011


Troops loyal to Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi pounded rebels in the coastal city of Misurata and in the capital of Tripoli during the fifth day of an international air campaign (NPR) to impose a no-fly zone over the country, as debate grew about the campaign's objectives. Questions also mounted about what principles are guiding the decision of the United States and allies not to assist other popular uprisings across the Middle East. Most notable at the moment is Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh faces a serious threat (BBC) from a protest movement that has been joined by military generals, ambassadors, tribal leaders, and others.

U.S. President Barack Obama has been trying to resolve allies' differences about the role of NATO in the Libya campaign (NYT). Uncertainty remains about how engaged Arab League states will be (WSJ), although it was the league's initial support for a no-fly zone that emboldened the United States and allies to move forward with it. Over the weekend, Arab League chief Amr Moussa criticized coalition airstrikes, though on Tuesday he repeated support for the UN resolution authorizing them. The strikes seem to have support in the Arab world (AlArabiya).

The Obama administration is taking pains to present U.S. involvement in Libya as limited, though Obama has indicated that airstrikes will continue (Politico) as long as Qaddafi remains in power. At the same time, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in an interview with the Washington Post that Middle East unrest highlights "ethnic, sectarian, and tribal differences that have been suppressed for years" and that as Washington encourages  leaders to accept democratic change, there's a question "whether more democratic governance can hold . . . countries together in light of these pressures."

A new Gallup poll shows more Americans approve than disapprove of the military action against Libya, while experts debate the wisdom of U.S. involvement. CFR President Richard Haass writes that Libya is the third war of choice the United States has entered in less than a decade, with no U.S. vital interests involved. Others argue, as Fouad Ajami does in the Wall Street Journal, that the situation in Libya is comparable to the humanitarian situation in Bosnia in 1995, and that the administration had a choice of "rescue or calamity. Benghazi would have been Barack Obama's Srebrenica, the town that the powers had left to the mercy of Ratko Mladic and his killers." Still others debate in this New York Times roundup what the U.S. plan should be for Libya. CFR's Micah Zenko presses for a negotiated settlement and greater involvement from the African Union. Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University historian, says Qaddafi should be removed by force or inducements.

In Europe, sympathy for the airstrikes seems strong. Jonathan Freedland argues in the Guardian that while the strikes are dangerous, not responding to Qaddafi would leave Britain "morally culpable." But in the Telegraph, one commentary questions what kind of government will be created after Qaddafi's army is defeated.

A number of commentators have argued that unlike in Libya, the United States has been reluctant to call for President Saleh's removal in Yemen (FT) because of Saleh's role in fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well as Yemen's crucial location on a Red Sea route for oil tankers heading to the Suez Canal. Others believe that Saleh's government is near collapse (Reuters), and that with his departure, Yemen could "fall apart as a nation state."

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