Politics & Policy

Libya’s Backseat Drivers

The Arab League is not a force for good in the Middle East.

Maybe the next time Pres. Barack Obama is tempted to follow the leadership of the Arab League, he’ll think twice. Having brandished the Arab League’s call as the classiest of multilateral credentials for going to war in Libya, and praised its members as partners, Obama is now left with little more from this crew than promises and the on-again off-again hectoring of Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa.

To be sure, there are good arguments for intervening in Libya. As leader of the free world, the U.S. is called upon by its own decency and democratic values to act when longtime tyrant Moammar Qaddafi embarks on the wholesale slaughter of Libyans trying desperately to overthrow him. If this war ends up spelling the long-overdue end of Qaddafi’s 42-year reign of terror, it could send an important message to other tyrannies, not least Iran’s, that it is becoming more dangerous to deal with massive protest by murdering protesters. The big question, then, is what might follow.

That’s exactly why the 22-member Arab League, far from being one of the best regional fixers in this effort, is one the worst. The League of Arab States — to use its official name — is not a club of democratic reformers hoping to bring civil liberties to Libya. It is a fractious collection of 21 Arab governments plus the Palestinian Authority, which it has already dubbed a state. Among its members, along with such relatively moderate Islamic countries as Morocco, are some of the world’s most unregenerately despotic, anti-Semitic, terror-breeding or terror-supporting regimes. These include Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and — although the League on Feb. 22 suspended its participation — Libya itself.

Not only has Qaddafi’s Libya been a member, but last March the Arab League handed Qaddafi its annually rotating presidency when he hosted a summit of the League in Sirte, Libya. That summit was not devoted to discussing the need for democratic reform in the Arab world; its focus was the usual routine of blaming Israel for Arab troubles. Other murderous despots holding the Arab League presidency and hosting its summits in recent years have been Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, in 2006, and Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in 2008.

But to a U.S. administration that values multilateralism above all — the more the better — none of this detracted from the Arab League’s allure as an arbiter, guide, and partner for policy toward Libya. For more than three weeks, as Qaddafi’s forces turned Libya’s uprising into a bloody rout, Obama dithered. Then, on March 12, the Arab League called for a no-fly zone over Libya. Hailing the wishes of the Arab League, though not bothering to seek a resolution from the U.S. Congress, the administration finally swung into action. Five days later, on March 17, the United Nations Security Council, with the enthusiastic vote of the U.S., approved Resolution 1973, authorizing the use of force to protect Libyan civilians.

This murky resolution is a masterpiece of dangerous U.N. equivocation, and the Arab League’s fingerprints are all over it. What Libya actually needs is not a no-fly zone, but a no-Qaddafi zone. Resolution 1973 does not provide for that. Drafted with more concern for Arab League sensitivities than for the practicalities of dealing with Qaddafi and his ruinous reign over Libya, it rules out any foreign boots on the ground and limits the use of force to protecting civilians — a job likely to become increasingly risky, costly, and complex if Qaddafi endures and the conflict drags on.


In this Security Council resolution, the League of Arab States is mentioned seven times in eight pages. The League, which has observer status at the U.N., is both cited as one of the inspirations for the resolution and dignified as one of the two authorities that U.N. member states must notify, and are requested to cooperate with, when embarking on “measures” to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. The other authority is the U.N. Secretary-General.

When Obama’s cabinet-rank ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, emerged last Thursday evening, just after the vote on this resolution, to speak to the press, she made no mention of the two strongest western supporters of intervention in Libya: Britain and France. Nor did she make any reference to the wishes of the American public, or of the bypassed U.S. Congress. Instead, Rice congratulated the Arab League as the driving force behind this new chapter in U.S. foreign wars, saying: “The Council today acted in response to a strong request by the League of Arab States.”

On March 18, the day after the U.N. resolution passed, Obama further dignified the Arab League, saying that the U.S., by using its “unique capabilities” to stop the violence against civilians in Libya, would also be “enabling our European allies and Arab partners to effectively enforce a no-fly zone.” He stressed, “This is precisely how the international community should work, as more nations bear both the responsibility and the cost of enforcing international law.”

But this past weekend, when the “international community” got rolling on operation Odyssey Dawn over Libya, it turned out to be a small community indeed. The operational coalition consisted of five western nations: Britain, France, Canada, and Italy, led by the U.S. What of the Arab “partners”? Apart from plans for four planes from Qatar and vague promises of humanitarian aid from the United Arab Emirates, the Arab League’s 21 active members were no-shows. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a U.S. military official, as paraphrased by Reuters, said that “Arab nations are expected to join later.” Further details have been thin on the ground.

The Arab League did make one highly visible contribution, however. On Saturday, U.S., French, and British forces began using missiles and air strikes to destroy Qaddafi’s air defenses, in the first phase of setting up a no-fly zone. On Sunday. the Arab League’s Egyptian secretary-general, Amr Moussa — now planning to run for the presidency of Egypt — made himself available to the press in Cairo. From there, haranguing those who were actually spending the resources and taking the risks to protect Libyans from their tyrant, Moussa assigned himself the role of backseat driver for the coalition’s bombing runs. Denouncing the strikes as excessive, Moussa threatened to convene a meeting of the Arab League to reconsider its support for the coalition. “What happened differs from the no-fly-zone objectives,” he said, adding, “What we want is civilians’ protection, not shelling more civilians.”

In a joint press conference Monday, with visiting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Moussa then backed off. But the question the U.S. administration needs to answer is: Why care what the Arab League wants? Why should the world’s leading democratic powers be looking with such deference to this double-dealing, outdated, and despot-riddled outfit?


Somewhere out there in the ill-defined endgame of the Arab League-inspired U.N. Resolution 1973, there’s going to be a scrum over the direction of oil-rich Libya’s future. If the Arab League then shows up, belatedly eager to help, beware. It bodes ill, for instance, that one of the Arab League members most ardently calling for the current intervention in Libya was Lebanon, currently a member of the U.N. Security Council. Lebanon ought to be a thriving democracy, but since the 2005 Cedar Revolution, in which the Lebanese rejected Syrian occupation, Lebanon’s government has been taken over by Hezbollah, the heavily armed terrorist clients of Iran. Neither an Arab state nor a member of the Arab League, Iran has greeted the Libyan rebellion by simultaneously calling for the ouster of Qaddafi and condemning western powers for interfering in Libya. The message there is twofold: Hands off the Islamic world, no matter what massacres might transpire; and if anyone is going to meddle in the oil-rich parts of North Africa, the terror-sponsoring, nuclear-bomb-seeking Islamist theocracy of Iran would prefer the privilege for itself.

Assorted Arab regimes might have other visions for Libya’s future. A big question mark now hangs over Libya’s eastern neighbor, Egypt, where, in the space opened up by last month’s popular ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak, the best-organized faction now eyeing power is the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood — progenitor of such terrorist groups as Hamas and al-Qaeda.

Whatever the Libyans themselves might want, there’s precious little precedent to suggest that the Arab League, as currently constituted, would weigh in as a force for liberal democracy. Most of the League’s member regimes have been trying during this Arab Spring to suppress their own uprisings. Having called on the West for help with Libya, it seems they are now too preoccupied, hypersensitive, stingy, or duplicitous to share fully in the burden of freeing Libya from Qaddafi’s 42-year rule of terror. Perhaps that’s just as well — provided they share just as little in building Libya’s post-Qaddafi future. 

— Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.

Claudia RosettClaudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. She joined the Wall Street Journal in 1984 and become the editorial-page editor at the ...


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