President Obama’s Libya initiative has splintered the political spectrum, creating some strange bedfellows. The wrangle reflects not only infinite complications but also the administration’s obfuscation. For the moment, it is far easier, with the outcome still very much in doubt, to define what is not true than what it is.
So here we go — what “Libya” is all about:
• Humanitarianism: Not exactly. Yes, there is little doubt that Col. Moammar Gadhafi would use any barbarism to maintain control — as he always has. But, in that, he does not differ from a half-dozen other Arab leaders. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Syrian President Bashar Assad “a reformer,” although he has maintained his father’s regime, which mowed down as many as 80,000 civilians in the 1982 “Syrian spring” and is at it again.
• Oil: Not exactly. True, Libya’s 2 million barrels a day of light crude are important for the Europeans (and for our East Coast product imports). But their loss isn’t going to determine world crude prices — or our skyrocketing pump prices. When this bash is over, a free-for-all will develop for Libyan crude — including prospecting for presumed large reserves.
• Terrorism: Not exactly. True, Col. Gadhafi has engaged in state-sponsored terrorism that cost 270 mostly American lives in the airline bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, and killed two U.S. servicemen and wounded more than 200 others in the bombing of a Berlin discotheque. He has cost tens of thousands of lives in Black Africa backing rival politicians. But he also has been an al Qaeda target, reportedly exchanging intelligence with Washington. Now some of his hard-core opposition in Cyrenaica, Libya’s eastern coastal region, is drawn from veterans who fought the Soviets and later U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
• Democracy: Not exactly.It’s not an accident, as the communists used to say, that not a single democracy exists among the 22 Arab states. There is no Arab tradition of individualism, local government, sacrosanct private property, an independent judiciary or pluralism. Islam arose among the Arabs not only as a religion but also as an all-encompassing lifestyle incorporating primitive tribalism. Democracy is more than elections. Indeed, several North African and Mideast countries would vote in — probably once only — Islamist totalitarians, as they tried to do in Algeria in 1991. Democracy won’t be coming to Libya soon.
• U.S.strategicinterest: Not exactly. The U.S. has an enormous stake in the region, from which 40 percent of world crude production now comes. As a leading trading nation, the U.S. maintains the free flow of commerce through the Suez Canal, the Bab-el-Mandeb and the Hormuz Strait. U.S. national security would be threatened by weapons of mass destruction and intercontinental missiles in the hands of enemies in the region. Iran’s ability to fish in troubled Arab waters is as important as its attempts to develop nuclear weapons. Libya is a minor player in this game, but its civil war inevitably sucks in its neighbors.
• ObamaDoctrine success: Not exactly. The administration’s claim to have pulled off a multinational rescue effort in Libya — as an alternative to traditional post-World War II American leadership and sacrifice — is smoke and mirrors. The U.N. authorizing resolution, to avoid Russian and Chinese vetoes, omitted any call for regime change in Tripoli, even as the president called for Col. Gadhafi to go. The “turnover” to NATO puts the mission under an American military commander and relies largely on U.S. logistical support. Support from other Arab countries is fickle at best. CIA and other “sneakers” on the ground, essential to coordinate operations, eventually could draw in American “boots.”
• Constitutionalauthority: Not exactly. Not only did the president omit the traditional Oval Office address to reassure the public and American troops going into battle, but he also did not seek simultaneous congressional endorsement. Instantaneous communication and ever-faster transportation again have defeated the purpose of the War Powers Act, which was aimed at reinforcing the Constitutional provision that only Congress can declare war. So look again for new amendments, as useless in defining the constitutional guarantee as were the earlier versions.
Does all that mean the U.S. should have remained out? Probably not. Two of its major NATO allies — Britain and France — were gung-ho to take on Col. Gadhafi. When Washington demurred in the Suez crisis of 1956, taking an equally moralistic position but against its allies, the result was Soviet mischief-making in the region for two generations. Unanticipated consequences are always the name of the game.
• Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.