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Benjamin R. Barber Headshot

The Dangerous Incoherence of American Policy in Libya

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What does President Obama want in Libya? To protect civilians in the name of humanitarianism? To help the rebels "win" the war they clearly cannot win on their own? Or to overthrow Gaddafi with or without the help of the insurgents? And what does any of this have to do with what were just recently our chief priorities -- the war on terrorism, the two ground conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in which the US in involved, and containing Iran and preventing it from securing weapons of mass destruction?

Because there are no clear answers to these questions, American policy throughout the region of uprisings, but especially in Libya, looks dangerously incoherent. Much of the problem comes from the fact that the U.S. government seems to be tracking the media in their coverage of the Middle East and North Africa, jumping from one story to the next, from one uprising to another, without thinking through the consequences of any given policy. We are afflicted with MEADS -- Middle Eastern attention deficit syndrome. Yesterday, Egypt; today, Libya; tomorrow Syria...

Like an agitated cat in a room full of rats, the president seems to be jerking his head around from one target to another, not knowing where or when to pounce or which rat, dead or alive, can satisfy America's national interests. The only way the president is going to be able to get in front of events is to develop some coherent policies based on clear principles and priorities and then apply them consistently throughout the region. These principles must reflect our own national interests, which include but are hardly limited to support for democracy and humanitarian aid. I would suggest they include the following -- ranked here in terms of their importance to our nation's interests as reflected by American policy before the uprisings:

1. First priority, head and shoulders above the others: continue to combat global terrorism and al Qaeda to protect the American homeland from terrorist strikes; and as part of that goal to prevent weapons of mass destruction from coming into the hands of rogue states and dictators.

2. To focus assets on and succeed in the two ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which, like it or not, we are now engaged and American soldiers' lives are at risk (supposedly key to the first priority).

3. To contain the influence of Iran in the region, and limit its capacity to aid Hezzbollah, Syria and other insurgents elsewhere, and above all to prevent development of its weapons of mass destruction

4. To protect Israel and work towards a resolution of the Palestinian crisis, which (prior to the uprisings) held the greatest potential for violence and instability.

5. To secure access to oil and gas assets in the region vital to the American economy and national security.

6. To provide humanitarian support for civilians caught in fighting between entrenched governments and insurgents (the UN and Arab League mandate in Libya).

7. To work for regime change and democracy, if necessary through direct military support (the French objective).

Here is the irony: from 2001 until very recently, priorities 1 through 3 were the focus of the media's attention (and sometimes hysteria) and the government's policies, while priorities 4 and 5 were conventional wisdom accepted by everyone. Yet in the course of just six weeks or so, not only have these crucial priorities been almost completely set aside, and the conventional wisdom (4 and 5) neglected, but to the extent we have a policy at all today, it starts and ends with priorities 6 and 7 (even though 7 could mean a land war in Libya that endangers 6) with America's primary interests in combating terrorism and weapons of mass destruction not just marginalized but actually jeopardized by our current incoherent policies.

Take Libya, where a frenzied media join excited politicians to call for military intervention -- for boots on the ground -- not just to protect civilians but to achieve regime change and the deposing of big rat Gaddafi (even if civilians are put in danger). Yet not so long ago President Bush helped secure the top two American priorities here through a peaceful rapprochement : weapons of mass destruction were removed voluntarily (imagine if Gaddafi still had them!) and the U.S. secured a formidable ally against al Qaeda in North Africa . More al Qaeda operatives were captured in Libya than anywhere else in the region, and Gaddafi was high on al Qaeda's hit list.

Bringing down Gaddafi is good for democracy (though it is not the same thing as achieving democracy), but may not be healthy for civilians (priority 6) and does nothing for priority 5 (we were doing fine with oil and gas under the old regime); but it diverts resources from priority 2; and it extremely damaging to priority 1 -- already evident in the release of al Qaeda prisoners from jail, the return of Libyan fighters who were killing American soldiers in Afghanistan back to Libya to join the rebellion (that "flicker" of an al Qaeda presence among the rebels noted by American officials).

Applying the same set of priorities to Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia would, I suspect, reveal a similar incoherence and counter-productivity in policy. Is the monarch of Bahrain really worth saving just because his country harbors the Fifth Fleet and is a gateway to Saudi Arabia? And isn't Saudi Arabia, with its Wahhabist support for fundamentalism and terrorism a problem for priority 1, though it helps with priority 3 (containing Iran)? Why so indifferent to Syria, an Iranian ally? Isn't Assad now "killing his own people"? or is it OK because he wears blue jeans and his wife is featured in Vogue Magazine?

If policy is meant to follow principle rather than the headlines, the principles must be clear. And the president has to be ready to contradict the attention deficit syndrome media and educate the journalists to whom he now seems to be pandering. CNN wants boots on the ground in Ben Ghazi? Sorry, that doesn't serve American interests. Fox news (owned by Murdoch's News Corporation whose chief minority stakeholder is Saudi Arabia's Kingdom Holdings!) likes the special relationship with Riyadh? Too bad, but that doesn't work for American priorities.Unless it's only about oil, in which case let the president say so.

Protecting innocent civilians and effecting regime change are worthy and important objectives, but they often are in conflict with one another, and come at costs that can endanger fundamental national interests. Our nation's security is the president's first priority. It's time to order and state our priorities and allow policy to serve them. We don't have the capacity to catch all the rats, so let's focus in on the ones gnawing away at our national security interests.

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