The Obama administration predictably is taking heat from conservatives about its restrained response to the crisis in Libya. There are even calls for a U.S. military response to hasten dictator Muammar Gadhafi’s departure. While well meaning, these critics seek short-term action that ignores substantial longer-term consequences.
The administration’s initial restraint was appropriately designed to protect American lives. Until hundreds of Americans could be evacuated, the administration reasoned that tough talk against Gadhafi could put lives in danger. We need only recall Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s kidnapping of several hundred Westerners in Kuwait in 1990 to understand the ease with which unscrupulous megalomaniacs will put innocent lives on the line to press political objectives. Gadhafi is certainly no exception.
Given the region’s volatility and precarious reputation America has among Arabs, comments like those from Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona strike us as short sighted. Urging Obama to “get tough,” McCain stopped short of calling for deployment of ground troops but endorsed establishing a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent pro-Gadhafi military from using aircraft to fire on protesters.
No-fly zones are useless unless enforced militarily. McCain should need no reminding, after the 1993 “Black Hawk down” incident in Mogadishu, that American military intervention always carries a substantial risk of escalating out of control.
Besides, in none of the Arab uprisings so far has there been a noticeable cry on the streets for American assistance. The U.S. must not disregard the strong sense of pride among protesters that this is their revolution. To remain authentic, victory must come from the street. Western intervention is just as unwelcome as meddling by, say, al-Qaida.
America’s past experience should play an important role as Washington gauges how to respond to the uprisings. Nothing on this scale has confronted the region, which means no one can predict how U.S. actions could impact future events.
America’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown repeatedly that heavy-handed, military-dominant responses to chaotic situations tend to breed only resentment and provide recruitment fodder for anti-West insurgencies.
The U.S. would be best served by remaining on alert and ready to assist ― but with heavy emphasis on providing help only when requested. The State Department should gear up with teams of advisers similar to the provincial reconstruction teams that have fanned out across Iraq and Afghanistan to assist in walking local leaders through the intricacies of democratic governance.
A policy of restraint doesn’t always play well with the American news cycle. But Arab protesters are proudly blazing this path for themselves, and Washington’s best response may well be simply to get out of their way.
(The Dallas Morning News, March 1)