Obama should consider creating a 'safe haven' for Libya rebels

A rebel enclave or safe haven would allow the opposition to build a vision for a post-Qaddafi Libya and to begin crafting institutions for that purpose.

Ben Curtis/AP
A Libyan man waves an American flag to indicate his support for the western air campaign, during Friday prayers in the square next to the courthouse in Benghazi, Libya, on Friday, April 8. NATO acknowledged Friday that its airstrikes had hit rebels using tanks to fight government forces in eastern Libya, while thousands of people gathered in central Benghazi to pray and mourn for some of those killed in the attack and chanted for revenge against Muammar Qaddafi's regime.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Map of Libya.

There is no question that Libya would be better off without Muammar Qaddafi. The more poignant question is whether his removal warrants more extensive use of American power and action – and whether the United States is willing to bear further responsibility for what comes after Colonel Qaddafi.

Just weeks into the intervention, the lack of clear goals is already muddying the waters and further complicating an already complex situation. Most Americans, and presumably nearly all Libyans, interpreted President Obama’s statement that it is time for Qaddafi to go not as an indication of the president’s personal preferences, but as a declaration of US policy. President Obama is not the first US president to call for a regime’s removal, but to be unwilling to commit extensive US resources to the purpose. Nor is he the first US president to hold a more ambitious goal toward a recalcitrant regime than the United Nations or US allies. President Clinton made regime change an explicit American objective vis-à-vis Iraq in the 1990s, even while the international community was focused on disarmament. President Reagan, for a time, openly called for regime change in Libya in the 1980s, later softening this stance.

But President Obama’s disconnect between rhetoric and actions is likely harder for Americans to process, given that the United States and its allies are already involved openly and militarily in a hot civil war. Under these circumstances, it is harder for the Obama administration to embrace the goal of regime change, but to be unwilling to do more to advance it in the face of what many perceive as open opportunities to do so. Some people will see the Obama administration as already half-pregnant with the Libyan opposition fetus.

This conundrum is starkly evident in the current debate over whether to provide US weapons to the rebels. Some are making the case that the quickest way to rid Libya of Qaddafi is to arm the rebels. (This is in itself a debatable proposition. The rebels have little weapons experience, organization, or clear leadership; more weapons without extensive training and embedded foreign forces might do little – except generate pressure to provide that training and those forces.)

But in evaluating this proposal to arm the rebels, we must be clear that the quickest way to remove Qaddafi is not necessarily synonymous with the quickest way to end American or international involvement in Libya. As Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated, it is the phase after regime change that has the greatest potential to get complicated and costly.

The Obama administration would be wise to align its rhetoric with its willingness to commit resources (military, economically, and politically) to Libya and to articulate an acceptable outcome in the short to medium term. It seems that the current US position is that the goal is regime change, but – as President Obama has said in his speech to the American people – he is not willing to use military force to achieve this aim. This is not an inherently unreasonable position (although, as noted above, it is complicated by the forward-leaning way in which the United States and others interpreted the UN resolution to essentially provide close air support to the rebels). If this is the approach the Obama Administration intends to take, it needs to connect it to a sensible vision of where this conflict should go in the near term. Besides being unrealistic, hoping that the rebels will overturn Qaddafi on their own is not a strategy.

Instead, the administration might focus on protecting Libyan civilians through the creation of a rebel enclave or safe haven. Some will denigrate this option as a “stalemate scenario;” it is true it is not the most desirable outcome imaginable. It would by no means be a quick fix or easy exit for the United States or the international community, as it would require the commitment of certain international assets for weeks, months, even years. But it could provide the opportunity for the world to get to know the opposition, for the opposition to build a vision for a post-Qaddafi Libya and to begin crafting institutions for that purpose. (The protected Kurdish areas did exactly this for the Iraqi opposition for more than a decade before Saddam was removed.) In the meantime, the international community could cajole and coerce Qaddafi to leave Libya and pave the way for the gradual building of a new and more democratic Libya.

If the Obama administration believes that regime change is more urgent, then it needs to adopt a different, more aggressive approach. This will require better anticipating three or four or more decisions down the road. If the United States does decide to arm the rebels, there is a high probability that at some juncture – either to avoid slaughter or to decisively shift the tide – the opposition will need a greater commitment of US military assets. How will the United States respond? A decision to arm the rebels openly might also lead to UN censure (there is currently a UN embargo on Libya, which does not exempt the rebels) or a withdrawal of Arab League support. How will the United States respond to this situation? If the United States decides to let other NATO allies arm the rebels, is this really a Goldilocks solution? How with the United States respond if/when Europe’s allies come to the United States for help extracting the rebels from a dire situation because they do not have sufficient equipment or forces?

While specific circumstances will obviously have an impact on the decisions made, it is not too early to anticipate an array of likely future scenarios and how they might be addressed.

Meghan O’Sullivan served as President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. She is now the Jeane Kirkpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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