Politics & Policy

What Should We Do About Libya?

Experts weigh in.


There are things we should do and things we should not do.

The president of the United States should not make vain boasts and empty statements. As the president has said Qaddafi must go, we (the United States, not just the president) will look weak and foolish if he stays on and wins his war. Qaddafi can’t be permitted to defeat the United States.

Accordingly, I think we must ensure that he loses power and leaves the country. In the end, this may require a no-fly zone, and I do not think we should shrink from it. But there are many ways we can try to ensure Qaddafi’s defeat without having our guys fly over Tripoli 24 hours a day. We can ruin their runways, use missiles from offshore, ensure they get no further arms shipments by sea, stop any payments for oil shipments, interfere with command-and-control frequencies, help arms get to the opposition, give intelligence to the opposition. As it seems clear Gates and Mullen want to do nothing, the president ought to look for some independent advice (much as Bush did on Iraq) as to what is doable. And then he should do it.

— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the deputy national security adviser on the Middle East in the George W. Bush administration.


If the president decides intervention is necessary in Libya, he must lay out specific objectives. Then, the administration should examine the various tools available — including ours and our allies’ civil, military, and intelligence capabilities — to meet those objectives. Finally, the president must openly acknowledge the risks of potential action, as well as the likely costs in financial and human capital.

The world will continue to look to America for leadership. Any action, including use of force, must be designed to advance long-term strategic goals.

Yesterday, the chief of naval operations told Congress a no-fly zone would begin combat operations inside Libya. But vital questions remain unanswered. What is the primary purpose of those operations? To protect civilians? To facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance? To begin regime change? Will this be a shared, international operation? What are the opportunity costs — e.g., will this divert military capabilities from ongoing operations?

For maximum effectiveness, military power must be used in a way that supports U.S. interests. It must also be used strategically — in this case, as part of a larger plan that engages the Libyan opposition, garners international support, and uses appropriate military resources.

It is not yet clear how yesterday’s announcement fits in with these requirements.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.


Qaddafi plays off the international community’s fear of illegal immigration and al-Qaeda. The truth, however, is that Qaddafi’s policies of oppression give rise to radicalism. In turn, Qaddafi benefits from illegal immigration, and the fear is intensified.

Qaddafi uses religion to propagate his politics, to affirm his rule, and to intimidate opponents. In 1970, he founded the Islamic Call Society (ICS), whose charter mandates proselytizing in Africa and elsewhere. The ICS still exists under the close supervision and guise of the Libyan External Security Organization, and its role has expanded to include subversion tactics and propaganda.

Qaddafi calls his opponents Zanadeqa (heretics) and hails himself the “imam of all Muslims.” During a July 2005 meeting with a state-controlled trade union, the crowd chanted, “We value and are proud of your imamship for millions of Muslims from East to West, so that the banner of Islam can be raised so high to fulfill the will of Allah.”

Before Qaddafi’s regime, Libyans participated in a constitutional democracy — though not perfect, its abuses paled in comparison with the atrocities that are occurring in Libya today. For example, thousands of Libyans have died in peaceful marches calling for freedom and democracy.

The citizens’ struggle against Qaddafi’s rule is not equal — nor do they have similar access to military supplies. He has planes, tens of thousands of security brigades, and the help of foreign mercenaries. Conversely, revolutionaries are lightly armed and at times have only their bodies to protect others against Qaddafi’s killing machine.

The U.N., under its responsibility and accountability to the international community, must protect the Libyan people from Qaddafi and his forces. In conjunction with the existent ICC inquiry, the U.N. must institute a no-fly zone over Libya, Qaddafi’s tanks and heavy weapons must be disbanded and removed immediately, foreign journalists must be protected, and all communication media must be restored.

The Libyan people are capable of using their nation’s wealth to build a thriving democratic country. Although it will be challenging to build and sustain the necessary institutions, Qaddafi must leave in order to facilitate this much-needed transition.

— Mohamed Eljahmi is a Libyan-American activist.


On Monday, President Obama said, “We send a very clear message to the Libyan people that we will stand with them in the face of unwarranted violence and the continuing suppression of democratic ideals that we’ve seen there.”

Even the New York Times editorial page noted that “the Obama administration is throwing out so many conflicting messages on Libya that they are blunting any potential pressure on the Libyan regime and weakening American credibility.”

The president said almost a week ago that Moammar Qaddafi needed to leave, but his administration appears unwilling to do anything to back up his rhetoric with action, and a steady stream of administration officials have played down the likelihood of an immediate military operation.

The first (long overdue) step would be for the United States, along with European allies, to implement a no-fly zone, even a limited one that would cover the coastal towns and cities currently being contested by pro- and anti-regime forces. Further action, such as arming the rebels and eventually targeting regime assets being used to kill civilians, should also be considered.

It’s one thing to argue that for strategic or other reasons we should avoid getting involved in Libya. Given his statements condemning Qaddafi and the regime’s violent efforts to remain in power, the president doesn’t appear to believe this.

The president should fulfill the “moral obligation” he cited during his campaign in 2008 to intervene as quickly as possible to halt the bloodshed.

It’s time for the president to stop talking and take action.

Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.


The president of the United States has publicly declared that Colonel Qaddafi must go. Failure to achieve that result in short order will be highly damaging to U.S. interests. American credibility and prestige among friends and foes alike — already hemorrhaging under Obama — will dissipate yet further, inviting greater dangers and challenges. Homicidal dictators — even those, like Qaddafi, with rivers of American blood on their hands — will know that they are safe to wage war on their own people with relative impunity. The balance between hope and fear in this springtime for Arab democracy will swing dangerously toward the dark side, increasing dramatically the risks that these movements will be hijacked by forces of extremism, terrorism, and anti-Americanism.

Absent outside intervention to aid the rebels, the greater the likelihood that the conflict will be prolonged, Qaddafi will survive, and U.S. interests will be seriously harmed. Rather than immediately engaging U.S. forces in the conflict through a no-fly zone or direct attacks on Qaddafi’s military assets, I would initially favor low-risk options to supply rebel forces with the means to get the job done themselves. Provide intelligence, ammunition, fuel, medical supplies, and communications systems. Quickly establish a train-and-equip program on lower-end anti-aircraft guns and missiles, anti-tank weapons, and artillery systems. In short, resurrect a version of the Reagan Doctrine.

Whatever form U.S. military assistance takes, I would also establish two diplomatic conditions. First, the rebels themselves must unequivocally ask for U.S. military help. It should not be hard for the head of the rebel council to find CNN’s Ben Wedeman in Benghazi to declare openly and in front of the world that, on behalf of the rebels, he has been authorized to request American aid in tilting the military balance in favor of the Libyan people. Second, I would require that U.S. intervention receive the public backing and active support of a coalition of the willing that includes a core group of key Arab and European states who have far more immediately at stake in Libya than we do, preferably including Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Gulf countries, Britain, France, Italy, and Germany. 

— John P. Hannah, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, served as national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2005 to 2009.


In recent years, Libya has been an ally in North Africa, forsaking its nuclear program and partnering with us to defeat al-Qaeda. However, the bonds between allies can be broken when one nation’s actions are antithetical to the principles and ideals of the other. Libya’s unjustifiably violent acts against its citizens have reached that point. The U.S. can no longer stand idly by and watch the turmoil in Libya.

America’s options are poor and limited, but we should not pass on the opportunity to display principled leadership.

First, America must take the lead by forcefully expressing support for American values. It is vital that the U.S. lead in promoting freedom, equality, and opportunity.

Second, the U.S. should support severe economic sanctions. American leadership must take a principled approach; the U.S. must not publicly condemn the attacks against Libyan citizens yet indirectly finance the war by continuing to trade with Libya.

Finally, establishing and enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya is an appropriate and measured response to its use of military aircraft against its citizens. America should not undertake this operation alone. The administration should emphasize that it will participate in this endeavor only with the full support and commitment of the international community.

— Pete Hoekstra is former congressman from Michigan.


As with Egypt, American sympathies instinctively side with Libya’s oppositional force as they seek to overthrow the tyrant Qaddafi — and rightfully so. But where U.S. foreign policy is concerned, prudence is in order. This is especially the case considering that the Obama administration has evinced inconsistency and incoherence regarding the Middle East: It vowed not to “meddle” in behalf of Iranian dissidents, while eagerly pushing former U.S. ally Mubarak out. At the start of Egypt’s revolution, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Mubarak’s government was secure; a month later, he was toppled; and the administration is misguidedly open to talking with existential enemies, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

The issue of oil looms large and is for some the primary impetus for U.S. intervention in Libya. Yet as others have long insisted, perhaps it is time to look at other options, such as drilling in Alaska or in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Because of Qaddafi’s eccentric nature — the man has as many bizarre traits as he does last-name spellings — few people take anything he says seriously. Yet, as top Muslim cleric Qaradawi issues a fatwa to kill Qaddafi, and Obama asks the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia to arm oppositional forces — reminiscent of arming the Taliban against the Soviets (and we know how that turned out) — one hopes that Qaddafi’s insistence that al-Qaeda/Islamists are major actors in the revolt does not turn out to be a classic case of the boy who cried wolf. Islamists and jihadists do have a knack of turning up where least expected and filling power vacuums.

That Qaddafi is an anti-American and tyrannical thug, there is no doubt. Yet, unless the administration has a clear and focused policy on what it wants to accomplish in Libya — one beneficial to all concerned — it may be best to let the Middle East’s latest survival-of-the-fittest installment play out and go from there.

 — Raymond Ibrahim is associate director of the Middle East Forum.


Benghazi could become the new Guernica. With warplanes, tanks, heavy weaponry, mercenaries, financial reserves, and, reportedly, direct military intervention by Syria’s air force, Qaddafi could possibly crush the uprising of the Libyan people, who are lightly armed. This would tell dictators across the globe that if you cavil at shedding blood you will go down, but if you are ruthless you will survive.

Qaddafi’s triumph, following the fall of neighboring pro-American dictators, would also make for further erosion of U.S. standing in the Mideast. And it would feed resentment, as when we abandoned Iraq’s Shiites to Saddam’s tender mercies in 1991.

The U.S. should impose a no-fly zone and deliver arms to the rebels — preferably with NATO, but without if necessary. To counter Qaddafi’s claim that we have designs on Libya, Washington should say loudly and often that our goal is free elections under U.N. supervision.

We should not, however, seek U.N. authorization for the military measures. To acquiesce in the claim that the U.N. Security Council (meaning Moscow and Beijing) is the arbiter of the legitimate use of force in the world is terribly dangerous. This claim rests on the U.N. Charter, but the Charter also provides for an effective U.N. military apparatus to enforce international peace and security that never came into being.

— Joshua Muravchik, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East.


Three weeks ago, Libya was blowing up, and the right thing would have been immediately to send a battle group to the Mediterranean. There are only four airfields in Libya, and it would have been possible to establish a no-fly zone at no cost. This would have given the anti-Qaddafi forces a chance, and they could have been helped with organization and financing, and if they so demanded, with weaponry.

The absence of any forward policy has doomed these forces. They will have the impression that the West’s inertia derives from lack of interest and loss of self-confidence. A few may fight to the end, but most are likely to try to escape the coming repression. All that can now be done is to freeze Libyan assets, impose sanctions, and persuade as many countries as possible to ostracize Qaddafi, with penalties at least for Western businesses who try to profiteer in the aftermath of the crisis. But there it is: By doing nothing, we have made ourselves accomplices of Qaddafi. It is truly ominous that he has no real power base yet has made rings round what was supposed to be a superpower.

 — David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor of NR.


President Obama’s inaction in the face of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi’s counteroffensive will have lasting consequences. The United States is still paying for the elder President Bush’s 1991 decision to stand idle as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein crushed the Shiite revolt. Bush’s realist aides counseled passivity. After all, the Iraqi people had already taken 14 out of 18 provinces. Bush feared that any American support for the rebels might taint their cause and be a slippery slope toward entanglement. In hindsight, though, Bush’s willingness to see Saddam reconsolidate control forced the Iraqi Shiites to embrace Iran as their protector, and set the United States down the path toward greater conflict.

Obama should not make the same mistake twice: He should immediately impose both a no-fly and a no-tactical-vehicle zone over areas controlled by Qaddafi. Libya is not Iraq, and a no-fly zone need not set the United States down the path to a wider war. While Saddam had 500,000 men under arms, Qaddafi had only 50,000, of whom press reports suggest only one-tenth remain. Beyond American carriers in the Mediterranean, Sigonella Air Station in Sicily is closer to the no-fly area than Incirlik Air Base was to Iraq. The United States should reach out toward Libyans to remind them that Washington is on their side, with both leaflet drops and daily statements to be broadcast on Radio Sawa. Taxpayer-funded Arabic radio should promote freedom, not Lady Gaga.

Lastly, Libya’s upheaval underlines the importance of domestic energy security. Obama must enable drilling and exploration anywhere the United States can, and enable American companies to process shale oil, exploit coal reserves, reinvest in nuclear energy, and use other alternative sources.

— Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


The Obama administration should end its erratic course with pro-democracy movements in the Muslim world. Libyan opponents of Qaddafi’s lethal repression are showing a bottomless level of courage and deserve concrete assistance from the U.S. and the EU. “Obama: Are you with us or against us?” asked Iranian democrats during the 2009 protests against the fraudulent presidential election. He left those brave Iranian democrats out in the cold. Obama is — one could argue — confronted with the same question in Libya.

The highly repressive and closed society of Libya is a kind of mirror image of the Mullah regime in Tehran. If 41 years of Qaddafi-style totalitarianism can be dislodged, then 32 years of high-intensity revolutionary Iranian-style fascism could face the same fate.

President Obama and his NATO and EU allies ought to swiftly introduce a no-fly zone over Libya, including a strict ban against low-altitude helicopter flights. Violations of the no-fly zone should entail military strikes against transgressors. Anti-aircraft weaponry should be rapidly delivered to anti-Qaddafi forces.

The WikiLeaks cables showed American diplomats at their finest: They were terribly concerned about the lack of democracy and human rights. Obama has an amazing opportunity to end his zigzagging in the region and show that America’s democracy language is not merely empty rhetoric.

 — Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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