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Obama Should Consider Creating a 'Safe Haven' for Libya Rebels

Author: Meghan L. O'Sullivan, Adjunct Senior Fellow
April 8, 2011
Christian Science Monitor

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There is no question that Libya would be better off without Muammar Qaddafi. The more poignant question is whether his removal warrants more extensive use of American power and action – and whether the United States is willing to bear further responsibility for what comes after Colonel Qaddafi.

Just weeks into the intervention, the lack of clear goals is already muddying the waters and further complicating an already complex situation. Most Americans, and presumably nearly all Libyans, interpreted President Obama's statement that it is time for Qaddafi to go not as an indication of the president's personal preferences, but as a declaration of US policy. President Obama is not the first US president to call for a regime's removal, but to be unwilling to commit extensive US resources to the purpose. Nor is he the first US president to hold a more ambitious goal toward a recalcitrant regime than the United Nations or US allies. President Clinton made regime change an explicit American objective vis-à-vis Iraq in the 1990s, even while the international community was focused on disarmament. President Reagan, for a time, openly called for regime change in Libya in the 1980s, later softening this stance.

But President Obama's disconnect between rhetoric and actions is likely harder for Americans to process, given that the United States and its allies are already involved openly and militarily in a hot civil war. Under these circumstances, it is harder for the Obama administration to embrace the goal of regime change, but to be unwilling to do more to advance it in the face of what many perceive as open opportunities to do so. Some people will see the Obama administration as already half-pregnant with the Libyan opposition fetus.

This conundrum is starkly evident in the current debate over whether to provide US weapons to the rebels. Some are making the case that the quickest way to rid Libya of Qaddafi is to arm the rebels. (This is in itself a debatable proposition. The rebels have little weapons experience, organization, or clear leadership; more weapons without extensive training and embedded foreign forces might do little – except generate pressure to provide that training and those forces.)

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