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Obama's Mixed Message on Libya

Interviewee: Robert M. Danin, Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Eni Enrico Mattei
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 15, 2011

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As opposition forces lost ground in Libya, calls for the imposition of a no-fly zone continued. Following Arab League support for a no-fly zone (CNN), G8 ministers met in Paris to further consider the issue, while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also in Paris, met with Libyan opposition leaders. CFR Middle East expert Robert Danin says it is time for the White House to end its ambiguity toward ousting Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi or risk losing credibility in the region. "The United States has to ratchet up the pressure significantly on Qaddafi and empower those who are going to remove him," says Danin, who thinks that given the unprecedented action by the Arab League, even Russia and China may agree to go along with a Security Council action. Danin also says that it is crucial for the United States to show support for the new regime in Egypt, but not to interfere. And he notes that the situation in Bahrain, where Saudi troops have moved in to support the Sunni monarchy, "has significant implications for the future of the Gulf."

Is Libya the most critical situation right now in the Middle East?

Actually, there are three particularly critical Middle East areas. First, is Libya. On the table is the prospect of Western--and potentially American--military intervention of some form. The second major area of concern is Egypt, which the rest of the Arab world is looking to as a possible success story. Egypt constitutes a fourth of the Arab world in terms of population and has reemerged since the successful ouster of president Hosni Mubarak last month as the leading force in terms of trends and development in the Arab world. They are set to have a referendum on Saturday on several constitutional amendments. How the post-revolution transition takes place in Egypt is going to be significant. Third, you have in Bahrain renewed violence and the intervention of forces from neighboring Saudi Arabia. Bahrain has quite significant implications for the future of the Gulf. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of the horrendous devastation in Japan. From an American point of view, the administration really has its work cut out for it.

With the Arab League's recent call for a no-fly zone, would the Russians and Chinese approve such a resolution, given their past reluctance? What is the feeling in Washington?

The dynamics may be changing. What happened in the Arab League was huge. We have never seen such an action taken by the Arab League, in which it unanimously called for what would have to be foreign planes enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya. The closest thing we've had was after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, [when] the Arab League was extremely divided. When it met in August of 1990 they were divided and could not reach a consensus position because of their lack of unanimity.

The president has made the decision that Qaddafi has to go, so now he has to think about how we make that happen.

The fact that all members of the Arab League are now calling for international intervention into a fellow Arab country is a significant historical milestone. That changes the dynamics in the Security Council. At the same time, you have the Gulf Cooperation Council calling for intervention. It makes it much harder for the Western powers to dismiss intervention as risking being called "imperialistic," since the whole Arab world is calling for it. The Russians and the Chinese will still have concerns, but their position may be weakened. How the United States acts will be important. The members of the Arab League, who in the past avoided such actions, are recognizing that they need to start to become more proactive and inactivity hurts them.

Does the United States have a good idea who comprises the opposition to Qaddafi?

That's one of the issues we need to take into account. It's important that Clinton is meeting Libyan opposition figures. We need to know who we are dealing with. There is the adage in the Middle East that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Well, that may not be the case. The enemy of my enemy still may turn out to be someone that we don't want to be friends with.

There are a number of possible parties here. Just because they oppose Qaddafi doesn't mean they are Western-oriented, Jeffersonian Democrats. It's important, especially as we look at the prospect of military intervention in the region, what it is we are seeking to do and who it is we are trying to help.

How well has the United States handled the Libyan situation?

The United States seems to be backing itself into an intervention without having stated clearly, or thought through clearly, what it is we are trying to do. On the one hand, you had President Obama on March 12 say that Qaddafi should step down. We've had a UN Security Council Resolution calling for an International Criminal Court investigation into Qaddafi. But at the same time, the United States has made clear that it was not very interested in a robust military response to what is happening in Libya. But it doesn't hold out the prospect of serious military force--at least not yet. This has the unintended consequence of reinforcing Qaddafi's inclination to want to fight, because there is no real incentive to step down. There is nowhere for him to go.

That may change as the dynamics in the Security Council and NATO change, as a result of what the Arab League has done. But until now the United States has not really clearly aligned its goals with its tactics. Early on, we got fixated on the question of a no-fly zone, without really thinking through what is it we are trying to achieve. Some have argued that Libya is a country of 6.5 million people in which the United States has no real national interest; we should just let it be. We can't intervene in every humanitarian problem in the world. Others say no. We need to intervene. They say that after having called on Qaddafi to step down, our own credibility is at stake. American policy needs to come together in a more cohesive way.

I take it you would support U.S. military action in Libya?

We've crossed that line. The president has made the decision that Qaddafi has to go, so now he has to think about how we make that happen. People are right when discussing the no-fly zone to raise the question, "What happens if that doesn't work?" Opponents have argued that this is a slippery slope. The minute you intervene internationally, the next thing you know you have American troops on the ground. They argue that we can't have another Afghanistan or Iraq. That's right, but I don't think it is an all or nothing proposition. The United States has to ratchet up the pressure significantly on Qaddafi and empower those who are going to remove him.

At this point, American credibility is on the line, and having identified our support for change in the region, what happens in Libya will have a dramatic impact in the region. Look at what has happened in the last few days. We've seen Egyptian troops actually go into Tahrir Square and clear out the demonstrators. We've seen Saudi troops enter Bahrain on the heels of a visit to Bahrain by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The signal that Qaddafi is sending is that force is a legitimate or creditable tool. Qaddafi is sending a message to the Arab world that "Mubarak stepped down, but I am not going to."

Now leaders throughout the region are asking themselves: Which is the right path? We need to show that the Qaddafi path is not a very attractive or successful one, lest others in the region follow it.

American credibility is on the line, and having identified our support for change in the region, what happens in Libya will have a dramatic impact in the region.

The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, with large numbers of Shiites, borders on the predominantly Shiite Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni monarchy. There are always reports of Iranian involvement in support of the Shiites. The United States wants to see the Bahrain monarchy remain, right?

What we'd like to see is a peaceful resolution of this conflict. [There] was quite a harsh Bahraini use of force in the first week of the demonstrations. Then the United States called on the Bahrainis to use diplomacy and practice non-violence. The Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, who is American-educated and very progressive in his approach, was appointed interlocutor with the demonstrators. We've had then several weeks of peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain, in which there has been some dialogue taking place.

What has happened in the last twenty-four to forty-eight hours is quite disturbing, because the violence was ratcheted up (NYT). When there is violence, the demonstrators' goals and demands tend to escalate. The regime tends to hunker down and opt for total quiet at whatever price necessary. That does not leave open much room for reconciliation.

Many of the original demonstrators feel that Egypt's upcoming referendum on amendments to the constitution this Saturday is too soon. They are calling for a "no" vote. Where do you think this is going to go?

The key institution that will dictate the path Egypt takes ultimately will be the military. Military rule is in place right now in Egypt. The military has taken a largely forward-looking approach. It chose not to intervene militarily against the demonstrators. It chose to intervene instead to urge Mubarak to step down. It is the one institution that can help shepherd this process forward in conjunction with elements of civil society that do exist in Egypt. The situation is very much in play, and I don't think that anyone has a lot of concern of backsliding and a version of Mubarkism without Mubarak emerging.

It is important that we keep our eyes on the ball in Egypt and keep engaged. That's why it is critical that the secretary of State is going there. It sends a very strong message that the United States supports the peaceful transition in Egypt. We have to find the right balance between trying to support the people in Egypt--who are doing the right thing--without interfering. This is an Egyptian-born revolution, driven by Egyptians.

If we'd had this interview a few months ago, we would have focused almost completely on the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Is this a dead issue now?

It's never dead, even if sometimes it looks morbid. As we speak, Tony Blair, the special Middle East envoy for the Quartet (the UN, the United States, the EU, and Russia), is in Jerusalem meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Quartet met recently and is looking to reconvene again.

Netanyahu is reported to be considering laying out some sort of initiative, because he is under a lot of international pressure to articulate where Israel stands on Palestinian national aspirations for statehood. At the same time, as a result of what is happening elsewhere in the Arab world, the Palestinians are taking steps to bring about greater unity, and to hold new elections. They recognize the need to focus on some of the domestic ills and reestablish the legitimacy of Palestinian rule. Their fear is that if they don't reform, and at the same time are unable to produce results through peace negotiations, their legitimacy will be challenged by the Palestinian people.

In the short run, both the Israelis and the Palestinians have to focus on their own needs. For Israel, they have just seen their strategic pillar in Egypt go through a revolution and are very anxious about what that may mean. Similarly, the Palestinians have lost something with Mubarak's departure, because Mubarak had been their elder cousin who had been encouraging them on a peaceful path. Even though there is a period of uncertainty, both sides have been looking to see how they can move forward domestically and in ways that will keep the peace process going.

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