President Obama has already developed a reputation for tough talk and little action. Worse yet, the United States' cautiousness in the wake of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan-while understandable-threaten to paint a picture of the Obama White House as weak, ineffectual and cowardly.
Just days into a military campaign to cripple Colonel Muammer al-Gaddafi's ability to launch attacks against the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the effort is threatened by obfuscation and lack of leadership. The same kind of foot-dragging deliberations which escalated the situation by enabling time for Gaddafi's forces to turn the tide against the early advances of the rebels now threaten to leave Libya in an open-ended civil war. By allowing such a dire situation to fester, the United States is abdicating its responsibility to provide moral leadership.
Instead, the U.S. should be neither apologetic nor abashed in clearly stating its interests: a removal of Muammar al-Gaddafi from his fiefdom in favor of a stable path toward an Arab and Libyan-led reconstitution of the Libyan state that gives voice to all the people of Libya, rather than to a single madman in Tripoli. The early impotence of the international community to respond to the tragic bloodshed was shameful. But a precedent has been set in all Arab capitals-including Tripoli: if the people demand and are willing to die for it, you must go. The success of the Arab revolutions of 2011, the fate of the Libyan people and security across North Africa and Europe demand that Gaddafi be removed from power -- his survival is not an option.
The hesitance of the United States to intervene -- and "nation-build" -- in another Middle Eastern nation is understandable. Engagement in Afghanistan was justified but is now languishing, and the American intervention in Iraq was both ill-advised and poorly executed. But the United States need not apologize for extending moral leadership when it is direly needed, or for pursuing distinctly American interests. President Obama should first and foremost be preoccupied with these factors, not with fear that any form of intervention should be avoided due to the learned mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also should not fear questions as to our regional positions. Our policy to support the leadership in Bahrain is based clearly on our interest to safeguard the Gulf from Iranian influence and threat, and to protect our strategic military bases. This is no secret, and we shouldn't hesitate to be clear and even bold about expressing our strategic interests, especially when they are consistent with the national interests of our Arab allies in the region. This should not preclude our continuing efforts to promote political reforms in Bahrain.
Libya, however, is indeed different than Bahrain. Despite claims by analysts that Gaddafi is of minimal concern to the United States' national security, his reign presents a genuine challenge to the White House. If the United States were to allow such a lunatic to hold onto power and slaughter his own people, any notion of the United States playing a stabilizing and positive role in the Middle East will be finished. Even so, speaking with the media on Sunday, Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated that "The focus of the United Nations Security Council resolution was really Benghazi, specifically, and to protect civilians. And we have done that, or we have started to do that. This is not about going after Gaddafi himself or attacking him at this particular point in time." Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, a Pentagon Spokesman, was much more direct when he recently told reports, "We are not going after Gaddafi."
The murky goals of so-called "Operation Odyssey Dawn" are already being criticized in capitols across the globe. It is simply unrealistic to suggest that an international coalition can provide sufficient support for the Libyan opposition merely by providing defense from the air alone. Furthermore, if the White House continues to display an opaque and reluctant U.S. role, it will only serve to solidify a dangerous status quo: a fractured Libya in which an enraged Gaddafi continues the bloodshed against an ill-equipped opposition whom the international coalition refuses to meaningfully support. Doing so will perpetuate the ever-strengthening view that President Obama is a weak, even cowardly, leader who has refused to stand up for America's principles and interests because of his reluctance to use military force at a time when U.S. forces are greatly extended. However, there is an alternative for President Obama to pursue: providing leadership for a coalition of Western and Arab nations to remove Gaddafi from power-which most Arab states would welcome-and map out a transition toward a proper system of governance unique to the tribal traditions of Libyan society. It is not the easy thing to do, nor perhaps the most popular -- but it is the right thing to do, for the people of Libya and for U.S. interests. We should get started right now.
The League's courageous support for the no-fly zone was a central part of the rationale for the current military actions underway. The Arab League should continue to acknowledge the change and reform taking shape across the Arab world by contributing to a campaign to oust Gaddafi from power in favor of a government that would serve the interests of the Libyan people. The United States and its Western allies need to be frank with the Arab world in both public and private. If you prefer Western intervention to be limited, you must step up and provide military support of your own, which would receive the full support and guidance of the United States, Britain and France among others.
The United States could start by pressing for a two-part strategy. First, clarifying the goals of the international coalition's current campaign-unabashedly: this campaign is indeed about the much-feared catch phrase of the moment: "regime change." However, unlike Iraq, this effort will be one that serves to support the Libyan people in finishing a job that they started. This first phase should include clear communications to the Libyan military and officer corps that abandoning Gaddafi now will be the only alternative to being killed, or arrested and tried on war crimes. This will encourage further defection, especially of the high ranking officers. Second, an Arab-led coalition should provide military support to oust Gaddafi, and then work alongside a reconstituted Libyan military to combine the various Libyan tribes-whose internal rivalry has been substantially mitigated in recent decades-into a national council. Such a council could then serve to navigate the country through a stable transition toward a system of government that suits the still uniquely tribal character of the country.
An Arab-led coalition could be composed of a variety of Arab nations, including Qatar, which is already contributing to the current campaign. Chief among the coalition, however, should be Libya's reforming North African neighbors, specifically Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Providing leading support would re-establish Egypt's leadership in the Arab world and safeguard the stability of its neighborhood. The symbolism of Tunisia's aid would link the Libyan campaign to the revolutionary protests throughout the region, which were sparked when Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and have lasted through the Libyan rebels' courageous stand against Gaddafi. Morocco's participation would be based on the reforms it has set in motion, and would signal that the longstanding rulers of the region are indeed prepared to engage in activities that provide a greater voice to their people. The Arab street is fully supportive of removing Gaddafi, and for his neighboring nations, the more-deranged-than-ever Gaddafi continuing at the helm in Libya could significantly jeopardize the hope generated by their recent reforms. Rather than serve as the next domino in the wave of Arab revolutions in 2011, Gaddafi's hold on power could lead to an even more radical regime in Libya, which has been known to pursue weapons of mass destruction, and will now have the pretext to seek revenge against huge swaths of its own population.
In short, the threat of a lunatic Gaddafi with a vendetta against his people and the world is one that the global community, and in particular Gaddafi's neighbors, cannot afford to test. That is why such a coalition to oust him should garner the support of both the United Nations and the Arab League. It should have a limited mandate to provide stability for the establishment of a new Libyan government. Ousting Gaddafi is not only the right thing to do; it should not be an insurmountable task. Otherwise, if an emboldened Gaddafi were to stay in power, United States interests would also undoubtedly be threatened. Even more, the credibility and moral leadership of the White House would be completely shattered. To be sure, the United States must be systematic, intelligent, and efficient with how it chooses to respond -- but it must be clear about its goals. Despite Gaddafi's threatening warnings of a long war, his military infrastructure is poor, and his Soviet-era weaponry considerably antiquated. With airstrikes already limiting Gaddafi's capacity, the focus should now be shifted to ousting him from power, and 'day-after' planning should commence immediately. In fact, once Gaddafi realizes that the international community is determined to oust him from power by whatever means necessary, he will seek to negotiate a peaceful exit.
The notion that a military campaign could leave Gaddafi in place must be completely discredited. If the youth in Libya-who have so courageously stood up against the much more powerful and ruthless Libyan dictator -- fail to oust him because of such Western cowardice, it will serve as a stain on this White House and a cancer on the hope and optimism that the Arab revolutions of 2011 have generated.