WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration’s new-found willingness to back aerial bombing to protect rebels cornered by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces may signal a critical turning point for the fledgling democracy movement in the Middle East.
On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution by a 10-0 vote to ground Gaddafi’s air forces with a no-fly zone and halt his advance on the rebel city of Benghazi through an arms embargo and other measures. China, Russia, Brazil, India and Germany did not take part in the vote. The measures, in response to gains made by forces loyal to Gaddafi, lent urgency to the weeks-long standoff, and demonstrated just how tenuous a grip advocates of reform have in the region.
The heady days of the Tahrir Square protests could ultimately be overshadowed by the bloodshed in the streets of Benghazi, leaving the best efforts of the White House to foster democracy in the region swept away by events.
“Time is running out for the Libyan people,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) at a hearing on the Middle East uprisings. “The world needs to respond immediately.”
U.S. officials seemed to get the message. After resisting weeks of calls for a no-fly zone, the administration suddenly found itself leading the international community in crafting a more forceful strategy against Gaddafi as he launched his final push to destroy opposition forces.
“I'm happy that the Security Council appears to be poised to pass something but I'm concerned that the time it will take to actually do something -- mobilize military action -- on the ground, will allow the depraved tyrant to kill more people and possibly squash the uprising,” said Samer Shehata, who teaches Arab politics at Georgetown University, prior to the vote.
Despite military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t flinch Wednesday when she said U.S. warplanes would bomb Libya’s defense systems to allow for a no-fly zone if the U.N. gave the go-ahead. But while an unprecedented invitation from the Arab League for Western nations to intervene against one of their own gave the administration political cover to act, there may be little U.S. policymakers can do to actually defeat the Libyan leader. More broadly, time could be running out to sustain the momentum for reform that began in Tunisia and flowered in Egypt.
“We lived in a sense of euphoria” after those autocratic regimes fell, said Dartmouth University North African expert Dirk Vandewalle. “Everything since then has been a little downhill. Even in Tunisia and Egypt we have not seen deep institutional reforms that would give one hope that these regimes have reformed themselves. The jury is still out.”
And then there is Bahrain, where even more may be on the line for American interests than in Libya. This week, while the world’s attention was turned elsewhere, the regime launched a violent crackdown aided by an influx of troops from Saudi Arabia.
While U.S. officials pushed to intervene in Libya, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns echoed Clinton in taking a soft, vague line on the unrest in Bahrain, calling only for “productive dialogue between governments and opposition leaders.”
The seeming double standard on democracy -- good for opponents of Gaddafi, not so much for the Iranian-friendly Shiite minority challenging the government that gives safe harbor to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet -- illustrates the delicate dance being done by policymakers.
“Like many other aspects of foreign policy, there are always particularities and ambiguities” in why the United States might speak out forcefully for pro-democracy rebels in Libya and stand on the sidelines as Saudi tanks help put down like-minded protesters in Bahrain, said retired Army General Wesley Clark.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” Clark added. “You may get to the same place but at different rates in different ways in different places.”
The former commander of NATO forces during the 1999 Kosovo War, Clark wrote this week that based on past U.S. interventions, Libya doesn’t meet the test for military involvement.
The U.N. vote taken in New York may have come too late as troops loyal to Gaddafi close in on Benghazi. The leader’s son boasted on Wednesday that military operations would be “finished” in 48 hours.
Meanwhile, skeptics in Congress say the United States can ill-afford a third military intervention in a Muslim country, let alone one that carries the danger of a long-term engagement.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was “doubtful our interests are served” by launching a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians.
“If we are going to declare war against Libya, we ought to have a congressional declaration of war,” he said. Meddling in Libya, Lugar added, could set a precedent for getting involved in “a stream of civil wars” all over the globe because of “humanitarian considerations.”
Kerry, the committee chairman, dismissed the idea of having Congress issue a war declaration. Time is short, he said, adding that there is precedent for the White House to act without congressional blessing. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan ordered an air strike on Libya in retaliation for terrorist attacks against Western targets.
More hawkish observers, meanwhile, said that anything short of military action in Libya by the international community could sound the death knell for democracy not just there but across the Middle East.
“The lesson autocrats drew from revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt was that the key to their survival was preemptive reform. Gaddafi, however, provides an alternate strategy: even more brutal repression,” said Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Had Libya fallen [to rebels], we'd be witnessing the regimes in Iran and Syria teetering on the edge of oblivion right now. Now that Gaddafi has rebounded, we see even moderate regimes” like Bahrain’s openly embracing the Libya model.