from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Who’s the Superpower? Lessons from Libya

February 24, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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China is sending a warship, among other planes and ships, to evacuate its citizens from Libya. According to the report, "The PLA Navy has just dispatched Xuzhou, a Type 054 Jiangkai-II class missile frigate, from the ongoing seventh PLAN anti-piracy task force deployment off Somalia to steam to Libyan coast to provide support and protection for the ongoing evacuation mission there."

In recent days, the White House has been saying that the United States had to watch its words and actions because American citizens were at risk in Libya. So instead of acting, we are building a diplomatic coalition. China has taken a different tack: to use power. Instead of biting their tongue, the Chinese appear to be making it clear to the Qaddafi regime that no danger to Chinese workers will be tolerated.

That’s the path the United States should follow as well. As I’ve said elsewhere, we should be making it clear to Qaddafi and his remaining henchmen that the safety of Americans in Libya is their safety; if Americans are attacked or held hostage, they will end up the way Saddam Hussein did. But the use of power will do more than ensure the safety of Americans; it will also help bring Libya’s civil war to a better end. Today there are no doubt many Libyan officials and military officers who are on the fence. They know that a victorious Qaddafi will take vengeance against those who opposed him, so they won’t jump until they are confident he will lose. American power can help them make that decision. We too should be moving ships and planes, and visibly taking the steps that show our own power. The message should be that we want Qaddafi to lose and will help ensure that he does. The sooner we do this, the fewer Libyans will lose their lives to Qaddafi’s murderous machine and the sooner the violence in Libya will end.

It’s depressing that we need to take lessons from Beijing about how to be a world power, but perhaps this will persuade the White House that its reticence is counter-productive. To see what is right and not do it is want of courage, Confucius said. In this situation, with Americans at risk and thousands of Libyans dying, what’s right is a display and utilization of American power.

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