I am currently traveling in East Asia and have been able to follow the war in Libya–or whatever we’re calling it this week–only intermittently. But I have been impressed that the Obama administration has been moving in the right direction after a rocky start. The president finally delivered an overdue primetime address to the American people explaining the rationale for this military effort: “When our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act. That’s what happened in Libya over the course of these last six weeks.”
Moreover, as Reuters was the first to report, CIA and MI6 officers, along with British SAS and SAS commandos, have been inserted into Libya to work with the rebels and enhance their combat effectiveness by coordinating with coalition airpower–something that I have believed from the first was essential to the success of this mission. But the administration is still debating whether or not to arm the rebels. I can understand hesitations because of the ever-present specter of repeating our mistakes in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when U.S. support was funneled by Pakistan’s ISI to the most extreme Islamist elements of the Afghan mujahideen. But we can help mitigate such dangers in Libya by directing any arms supplies through Western agents–not letting a third party like the ISI take charge of our aid program. More aid to the rebels appears needed because they are locked in a seesaw battle on the ground. Notwithstanding the embarrassing defection of his foreign minister, Moammar Qaddafi may be able to hold out for an extended time unless we ramp up the pressure even further.
In his National Defense University speech, Obama said that until Qaddafi “stepped down from power… Libya will remain dangerous.” He is right, and that is why he should make Qaddafi’s overthrow a more explicit objective of the coalition mission. Obama danced around this point by saying that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake” and “to be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq.” But the reality is that regime change is already part of our mission–as Obama in effect acknowledged in other parts of his speech.
Nobody is suggesting that we send a ground army to depose Qaddafi. At this point the debate is mainly about whether to send more arms and trainers to the rebels. Given that we already have Western agents on the ground helping them, and that Western aircraft are actively bombing Qaddafi’s forces to bring about his defeat, it seems disingenuous to claim we are not involved in regime change. The only question now is whether that regime change will be swift or protracted. I believe it is in our interest to do everything possible to bring about Qaddafi’s downfall as rapidly as possible–and then to help Libya stabilize itself in the aftermath.
Obama referred to this latter point when he said: “The transition to a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people will be a difficult task. And while the United States will do our part to help, it will be a task for the international community and –- more importantly –- a task for the Libyan people themselves.” It is important that the president and his aides flesh out what doing “our part to help” will involve, and line up the necessary commitments to deploy a UN peacekeeping force or take other steps to safeguard post-Qaddafi Libya from the dangers of a terrorist takeover.
That, ultimately, is the most important lesson we should learn from Afghanistan in the 1980s: If the U.S. is involved in toppling a regime, whether directly or indirectly, we must not walk away afterwards. Otherwise our aid can backfire.