Libya is engaged in a civil war. New protests have broken out in Oman, Bahrain and Yemen. The uprising in Tunisia, the pioneer state of the so-called “Arab Spring,” is entering a second phase. As usual, the amateurish Obama administration has no idea what to do about any of this.
Two weeks ago, President Obama claimed victory during the crisis in Egypt, claiming his administration “calibrated” its response “just about right.” Mr. Obama thus made a virtue out of not having a strategy. The concern at the time, however, was that validating instability in one country would hasten its spread to others.
Fast forward two weeks. The list of Middle East states that have experienced some form of major protest is not longer than the list of those that haven’t. Oil prices have continued to rise and spiked dramatically when Libya sank into open conflict. A pledge from Saudi Arabia to intervene to promote price stability brought temporary relief, but on Tuesday prices began to climb toward $100 a barrel again. If the stirrings of protest in Saudi Arabia turn into open revolt, there will be no way to halt a ruinous price rise with destabilizing echoes throughout the global economy.
In Libya, longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi has pledged to fight to the end to preserve his rule. The colonel is using air power, tribal militias and African mercenaries to fight the insurgency at his doorstep. Despite Gadhafi saying Mr. Obama is his friend, the Obama administration has issued repeated statements saying the United States “deplores” the violence and calling on Gadhafi to leave power. But the outcome of the civil strife in Libya is very much in doubt, and the longer it continues, the greater the risk there is of a large-scale humanitarian crisis and more serious disruptions in energy markets. Both idealists and realists have skin in the game.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton chimed in, saying, “In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy or it could face protracted civil war.” This is a false dichotomy. Mrs. Clinton should heed the lesson of the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s. That conflict raged for three brutal years while the international community fretted, imposed sanctions and tried to keep the war contained. It eventually came to a swift conclusion when NATO launched a series of air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs and compelled Serb leaders to agree to the terms of the Dayton Peace accords. Not all violence is deplorable; sometimes it leads to peace.
The United States is building up military assets near Libya for some type of action, such as enforcing a “no-fly zone” over the country, which in practice would involve destroying the pro-Gadhafi air force. Declaring a “no-tank zone” would hamper Gadhafi’s ability to reassert control over his country if he manages to stabilize the situation around Tripoli. And more direct action against the regime is possible. If Mr. Obama is serious about removing Gadhafi from office, he could launch the same type of attack that Ronald Reagan did in 1986, hopefully this time with better aim.
The White House warns that all options are on the table, but this overused cliche is simply a recipe for paralysis. Crises aren’t solved by presenting a president with an unlimited smorgasbord of courses of action; they are settled when the decision maker finally decides. The longer the O Force waits to take action, the larger the credibility gap widens. America has established that its national policy in Libya is regime change. The question now is whether our inexperienced president will take concerted steps to back up that policy.
Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, boasted that the regime in Tripoli is not fazed by the prospect of U.S. intervention. “We are ready, we are not afraid,” he said Tuesday. “We live here, we die here.” Maybe that can be arranged.